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Last Updated: Friday, 20 July 2007, 20:06 GMT 21:06 UK
Musharraf faces legal nightmare
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

The Supreme Court of Pakistan's ruling that the country's military ruler was wrong to sack the court's top judge is, many legal experts say, a "landmark judgement".

Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry
Judge Chaudhry had faced accusations of abuse of power

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was suspended by President Pervez Musharraf in March, facing charges of misconduct and abuse of powers.

The case was dealt with by his fellow judges. Now they have restored the chief justice with full powers.

The government's response has been one of passive acquiescence. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the government would abide by the court's verdict.

Absence

The judgement came on a day which - in other respects - was unusually quiet.

For the first time since the bloody military operation against the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad this month, there was no major bomb attack reported anywhere in the country.

And all the political and civil society activists who usually flocked to the courts in their thousands during the proceedings against Mr Chaudhry were conspicuous by their absence.

We promised the people that we are fighting for the rule of law, and we will see to it that the movement comes to its logical end
Ahsan Bhawan, lawyer

It appears the political parties issued no calls to their workers to converge on the Supreme Court. Most people stayed away due to the fear of a bomb attack. It was only three days ago that 15 people were killed at a rally in Islamabad that the judge was due to address.

But more than 1,000 lawyers who attended the court were ecstatic following the announcement of the verdict. They chanted the now traditional cry of "Go Musharraf go", but this time more in euphoria than anger.

Legal experts are of the opinion that the judgement marks a watershed in Pakistan's legal history and will have far reaching implications for the rule of law in the country.

"The country has been reborn today," said an emotionally charged Ali Ahmad Kurd, one of the lawyers who represented the chief justice. "Until today it was a body without a soul."

The message for the government of Gen Musharraf is not even remotely comforting.

"The court has completely demolished the government's case and has put an uncomfortable question mark on its moral standing," says Wasim Ahmad Shah, a legal affairs correspondent who works for Dawn newspaper.

"In coming days, the government will find it increasingly difficult to deny that it tried to get rid of a constitutional office holder with malafide intentions."

There are already calls on the president to apologise, to resign, or at least to explain to the nation that his action of 9 March was in good faith.

Undercutting the government's moral standing is an increasingly assertive movement of lawyers which has just tasted its first triumph.

"This is not the end, but the beginning of our movement," says Ahsan Bhawan, the president of the Lahore Bar Association.

"We promised the people that we are fighting for the rule of law, and we will see to it that the movement comes to its logical end. We are entering a new phase of our campaign today."

United force

Lawyers' groups have been active in their opposition to the military government since October 1999, when Gen Musharraf captured power in a bloodless coup.

But the sacking of the chief justice catapulted them into a united force to which also galvanised several opposition political groups and civil society activists, thereby creating a wider movement against the government.

Pakistan bombing
A bomb blast in Islamabad on Tuesday left 15 dead

Observers feel that the reinstated chief justice is likely to emerge as more powerful than he was before 9 March.

"For the first time in the history of the country, we have a chief justice who knows that the lawyers stand united behind him, and that the wider public supports him," says Wasim Shah.

But this is also likely to keep him under pressure when it comes to handing down judgements on such controversial questions as the re-election of Gen Musharraf, observers say.

Gen Musharraf declared recently that he would like to be re-elected from the present parliament, whose term comes to an end in November, and that he would also like to remain as the army chief.

The opposition groups and the lawyers believe both these steps are unconstitutional, and are likely to challenge them in the Supreme Court in coming days and weeks.

Chief Justice Chaudhry demonstrated himself to be an independent minded judge before 9 March when he delivered several judgements that went against the government.

He reversed the privatisation of a steel mills which was ordered by the prime minister, and forced the intelligence agencies to declare the whereabouts of dozens of political activists who were being kept in "undeclared" custody.

Problems multiplied

Many observers believe he was suspended by Gen Musharraf, anticipating court cases concerning his re-election and whether he is entitled to be both president and head of the army, because he wanted a more pliable judge in his place.

He clearly has not got what he wanted. And in the meantime Gen Musharraf's problems have multiplied.

Since the beginning of July, his government has been facing a maddening rush from Islamist suicide bombers who are ostensibly out to avenge the Islamabad Red Mosque bloodbath.

More than 100 people, most of them military personnel, have been killed in such attacks in northern Pakistan, threatening anarchy in the region.

And his efforts to strike a deal with the largest opposition party of the country, the Pakistan Peoples Party, have borne no fruit so far.

As such, the devastating blow from the Supreme Court could not have come at a worse time.

And it has brought a "reincarnated" Justice Chaudhry to the helm in an area which alone can offer legal backing for Gen Musharraf's future ambitions.

His only other course may be to suspend the constitution and declare an emergency in the country.




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