Connect to share and comment

Jubilation at ruling on Pakistani judges

The reinstatement of the chief justice and others who campaigned against government corruption heralds a shift in Pakistani politics.

Pakistan's reinstated chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (C) waves to his supporters at his residence in Islamabad after the government's announcement on March 16, 2009. Pakistan's government agreed to reinstate Chaudhry as chief justice in a surprise move to defuse a crisis and end agitation by lawyers and activists that has threatened to turn into violent confrontation. (R.S.Khan/Reuters)

ISLAMABAD — Soon after midnight, the crowds started gathering outside the house of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, which sits at the top a winding road on a green hill in the capital.

But it wasn't until just before dawn that the news they had all been waiting for finally arrived: Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani announced in a televised speech that, on his order, all judges deposed by the former president, Pervez Musharraf, in November 2007, including Chaudhry, would be reinstated.

"Let us all celebrate this historical event in a respectable manner," he suggested.

And celebrate Pakistan did. The crowds outside the judge’s house erupted. In one corner of the yard, a group of college students and human rights activists sang nationalistic folk songs to the tune of an electric guitar. A large group nearby, workers and supporters of Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamist party, chanted "Allah-o-Akbar," or "Allah is Great."

For the thousand or so in the judge's yard, and for many millions across this country, the news marked a fundamental political shift — and judging by the reactions of those on the hill, by change that many here can believe in.

The supporters of central opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, roared in support of the "Tiger of Punjab," and the Justice Party's supporters recited revolutionary poetry into megaphones. Parents with young children, who stood at the periphery of the crowds, joined in the cries of "Long Live Pakistan."

Then there were hundreds of lawyer's chanting in support of Chaudhry: "Chief: Your support is endless," they yelled, a popular cry for the movement for Chaudhry's restoration heard in street protests over the past two years.

The several thousand marchers en route from Lahore to Islamabad over the weekend, threatening sit-ins that would have crippled the capital, turned back after the prime minister’s announcement. It was a break for President Asif Ali Zardari, although he may not be breathing any easier.

Over the past few weeks, he has alienated many within the party he inherited from his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto. His political rival, Sharif, had cornered him into submission with an awesome display of crowd power despite Zardari's crackdown on protesters. The president, who fought tooth and nail against the return of Chaudhry, is likely discomforted by the thought of a tough judge in courtroom number one at Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Besides the expected assault on his presidential powers in the legislature, Zardari can now also expect his rivals to use the courts to weaken him.

There is likely also going to be a challenge to the formal deal with Musharraf that granted Zardari amnesty in several court cases against him. The same deal opened the way for Zardari to return to Pakistan and become president.

But questions about the procedure to bring back the judges remain: Will the chief justice be required to take a fresh oath of office? Will the additional judges added to the Supreme Court since his dismissal keep their posts? These are technicalities, but very important for the lawyers and legislators involved in what is being called by some here a legal “soft revolution.”