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Profile: Iftikhar Chaudhry

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry
Mr Chaudhry has become a focal point for the opposition
The former chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, has won many plaudits for bravery as the only judge in the nation's judicial history to have stood up to a military ruler and won.

Many now also see him to be at the centre of a potentially violent confrontation which threatens the very civilian set-up his earlier defiance seemed to have inspired.

In March 2007, he refused to submit to pressure from former military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, to quit his office. This instantly brought tens of thousands of people to rally around him in a movement that ultimately led to elections and Mr Musharraf being ousted.

But the question of his restoration has since undermined an alliance between the two largest parties of the country, namely the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N).

The PPP, which heads the ruling coalition, says Justice Chaudhry and several other judges sacked by Gen Musharraf can only be restored if they take a fresh oath of office, an offer which many have accepted but some, including Justice Chaudhry, have refused.

They believe a fresh oath would amount to admitting to the legality of their sacking in 2007.

The PML-N, which supports the judges' position, has already quit the coalition and is now poised to start what some of its leaders call a "revolution" against the government.

The infighting has destabilised the country's nascent democratic set-up, and further tainted its largely mistrusted legal system.

Justice Chaudhry is still considered by many to be the symbol of justice, rule of law and democracy, but few believe he will be restored to the top judicial office of the country.

Conventional career

Justice Chaudhry was born to a lower middle class family in the western city of Quetta in 1948. He studied law at the local university and started a legal practice in Quetta in 1974.

President Musharraf
Gen Musharraf reprimanded Mr Chaudhry for alleged misconduct

He tried his hand at all fields of law; civil, criminal, tax, revenue and, at a later stage, constitutional matters. He qualified for legal practice at the Supreme Court in 1985.

In 1989, the Balochistan provincial government appointed him as its advocate general, and the next year he became a judge of the Balochistan High Court.

He became the chief justice of Balochistan High Court in April 1999 and was elevated to the Supreme Court in February 2000. On June 30 2005 he was appointed the chief justice of Pakistan.

During this period, Justice Chaudhry did not betray any signs of breaking with the past traditions in order to chart an independent course for himself.

He sat on four pivotal Supreme Court benches between 2000 and 2005 that validated the military takeover by Gen Musharraf, his referendum, his legal framework order (LFO) and the 17th constitutional amendment that gave the president additional powers and allowed him to continue as the army chief.

Though Justice Chaudhry voted with the majority on each bench, he did not head any of them.

Embarrassed government

However, after becoming the chief justice, he became eager to secure the independence of the Supreme Court.

Being the youngest chief justice, he showed a lot of energy in working overtime to clear the backlog of cases, and established a separate human rights cell at the court for cases involving so-called honour crimes.

He also took on the government, reversing a major privatisation deal that had been approved by former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, and forcing the country's intelligence agencies to admit they held dozens of people in secret custody.

On both counts, he greatly embarrassed the government.

Getting the administrative and policing system to deliver in such cases often necessitated harsh handling of officials in the court.

He grew increasingly unpopular with those officials, but became the darling of human rights groups whose activists came out in large numbers to support him when he was suspended by Gen Musharraf on 9 March 2007.

Observers believe that two factors played a decisive role in elevating him from the realm of the ordinary to the status of a hero.

First was the TV image of the judge being reprimanded for alleged misconduct by an increasingly unpopular military ruler, in uniform and in his military residence to which the judge had been "summoned".

The second was his courage to refuse to step down and his determination to face the charges.

In the post-Musharraf period, however, Justice Chaudhry has gradually conceded the centre stage to other players, such as PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif and lawyer leader Aitzaz Ahsan.

Apparently, the lawyers' "long march" and their proposed sit-in in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, are still geared towards Justice Chaudhry's restoration.

But the dominent theme of the proceedings unmistakably points to a power struggle.

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