Pakistan defuses crisis, agreeing to restore judge

ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistan’s government  agreed yesterday to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief  justice to defuse a political crisis and end a street agitation  that was threatening to turn into violent confrontation,  officials said.

Chaudhry became a cause celebre after being dismissed in  late 2007 by then-president and army chief General Pervez  Musharraf.
“Chaudhry will be restored, and there will also be a  constitutional package,” a government official with knowledge  of the deal told Reuters.
President Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected by parliament  six months ago, had feared the judge could wage a vendetta  against Musharraf that could also threaten his own position.
His retreat on the issue will raise inevitable question  marks over his future, while it will enhance the reputation of  his chief rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Several hundred jubilant lawyers and activists gathered  outside Chaudhry’s Islamabad residence, which he refused to  vacate after his dismissal when Musharraf declared emergency  rule in a desperate move to extend his presidency for another  term.
They danced and chanted “Long live the chief justice”.
“He has to forget the past. He has to forget the conduct of  those who were apparently against him as well as us,” retired  judge Tariq Mehmud, a leader of the lawyers’ campaign, told  Reuters.

“It’s victory for those who fought for independence of  judiciary and it’s the first time in the history of Pakistan  that a movement launched by middle class has proved  successful.”
The political crisis gripping the Muslim nation has alarmed  the United States and Britain, which fear any slide into chaos  would help the Taliban and al Qaeda become stronger in  Pakistan.

Western diplomats had tried to make Zardari pull out of a  collision that could destabilise the year-old civilian  coalition and force a reluctant army chief, General Ashfaq  Kayani, to intervene.

Sharif, a two-time prime minister with a conservative,  religious nationalist support base, had backed a lawyers’  movement fighting for the independence of the judiciary.
His government was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, and  since his return from exile in late 2007 he has become  Pakistan’s most popular politician, thanks partly to his stand  over the judge.

Zardari finally conceded as the opposition leader and the  lawyers held a day of protest in Lahore yesterday, and set off  for Islamabad for the climax of a series of protests they had  dubbed “the Long March”.

To stop them driving into Islamabad, authorities positioned  containers and trucks across roads outside the capital.
Paramilitary troops are camped in a city sports complex and  deployed at entry points, while, officials say, the army has  been put on stand-by.
A senior leader in Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)  (PML-N) party confirmed the breakthrough, as the convoy halted  at Gujranwala, a town around 60 km north of Lahore.
“The message we got is that the government has decided to  restore chief justice Chaudhry and they are going to announce  it shortly,” Khawaja Asif told Reuters. “There will be a very  comprehensive package,” he said.

There were scenes of jubilation in Gujranwala as the news  spread of Chaudhry’s reinstatement.
The government had been offering concessions earlier, but  Sharif refused to accept anything less than Chaudhry’s  restoration.
Sharif latched onto Chaudhry’s cause two years ago, but the  current crisis began when Zardari ejected the PML-N from power  in Punjab last month, after the Supreme Court barred Sharif and  his younger brother Shahbaz from holding elected office.

The constitutional package being worked out was expected to  include the formation of a commission to review judicial  appointments and the lifting of central government rule in  Punjab, setting the stage for the provincial assembly to elect  a chief minister.

Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister  Benazir Bhutto, was elected by parliament last September after  forcing Musharraf to quit the presidency.
Deeply unpopular, Zardari’s image was further damaged when  he broke a public promise to Sharif last year to reappoint  Chaudhry, though he reappointed most other judges axed by  Musharraf.

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