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Saga of restoring Pakistani judges

By Ilyas Khan
BBC News

Pakistani lawyers during an anti-Musharraf rally in Karachi, 17 April 2008
Lawyers have led calls to reinstate the judges

The decision of Pakistan's new ruling coalition to restore the judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf last November has sparked both excitement and apprehension.

Excitement because of the expectation that the sacked judges may actually take their seats on the bench on the designated date, 12 May.

But there are also fears that this may start a confrontation between the ruling alliance and President Musharraf, who is armed with powers to sack the government.

Both expectations may be exaggerated.

Regarding the restoration of judges, one of the two main coalition leaders and chief of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), Nawaz Sharif, believes it will happen on 12 May.

"There will be a resolution in the parliament, which will provide the basis for an official notification, to be issued the same day, and God willing, the judges sacked illegally by Musharraf will stand restored," he told the media on Friday.

Injunction risk

But some observers believe it may not be that simple.

"People want the activation, not just restoration, of the (sacked) judges," former information minister and a loyalist of President Musharraf, Shaikh Rashid Ahmed, told a Dawn News television interviewer.

"This does not seem possible on 12 May," he said.

Mr Ahmed's views are in line with general observations that the court may order an injunction against such a move.

Some observers say the incumbent chief justice - who stands to lose his position if the sacked chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, is reinstated - may be motivated to issue such injunction.

A Pakistani lawyer wears a makeshift hat showing former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in Quetta, 31 March 2008
Iftikhar Chaudhry became a focus of opposition to Mr Musharraf

Judges whose current seniority would be affected in the event of the restoration would also have a similar motive, they say.

This could open the floodgates for litigation involving the legality of everything that has happened in the country since 3 November, when President Musharraf sacked the judges and imposed emergency rule.

Even if the incumbent judges cave in before the popular mandate of the ruling coalition, there are legal questions that will have to be addressed.

Mr Sharif admitted that under pressure from Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the larger party in the coalition, he had agreed that the incumbent judges, who replaced the sacked judges on 3 November, should not be sacked.

Apparently, this would increase the number of judges far beyond the one stipulated by a law called the Judges Act.

Mr Sharif said that a committee of legal experts, headed by Farooq Naek, the federal law minister and a member of the PPP, had been constituted to iron out legal complications in this regard.

Isolated president

On his part, Mr Naek said in a televised comment that the process may take longer.

"We will try to finish the job as early as possible, but there is no harm if the [actual] restoration of the judges goes beyond 12 May".

Meanwhile, President Musharraf, who is said to be the actual target of this move, is yet to react publicly.

Inside the presidency, however, he has been meeting his political allies, notably the leaders of Pakistan Muslim League Quaid (PML-Q), with an apparent aim to assess the situation and formulate a response.

Nawaz Sharif (left) and Asif Zardari speak to reporters in Dubai after holding talks (30 April 2008)
Coalition partners met in Dubai to discuss the judges' fate

Mr Musharraf fears that the reinstatement of the judges may ultimately lead to his impeachment by the parliament.

Lately, many analysts and politicians have said that he may be contemplating retaliation.

Some have even said that he actually issued veiled warnings to the PPP leadership that if worse comes to worse, he may sack the parliament.

But now that the ruling alliance has announced a date for the judges' restoration, will he play the cards that he holds?

Many analysts believe that he might blink.

His confrontational attitude in the recent past has led to political instability and has also eroded the benefits of the economic growth that was achieved during the last few years.

This has made him probably the most unpopular leader in Pakistan today.

The army, which some observers believe may still support him at a critical time, has publicly distanced itself from politics.

And all the players on the political scene, including the judges, the civil society and the new government, are arrayed against him.

As things stand, he has 10 days to show if he can wriggle out of this isolation.


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