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News from Pakistan: Pakistan reinstates judge to divert crisis

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  • Zafar Khan
    Pakistan reinstates judge to divert crisis By Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich in Lahore Monday, 16 March 2009
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 21, 2009
      Pakistan reinstates judge to divert crisis
      By Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich in Lahore
      Monday, 16 March 2009


      Pakistan's beleaguered government today caved into the demands of thousands of protesters and reinstated an ousted judge in a move designed to end a paralysing political crisis.

      In a dawn address to the nation that capped a day and night of high drama, prime minister Yousaf Giliani announced that former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would be restored to his position within a week. The announcement set off scenes of celebration and frenzied cheering outside the judge’s house in Islamabad, a city that was supposed to have been under lockdown with thousands of police and troops standing guard. The country’s stock exchange also soared.

      Mr Gilani said that more than 1,000 lawyers and political activists arrested over the last week as they sought to join a so-called Long March to the capital would be immediately released. He then called for reconciliation between Pakistan’s various political factions.

      "I announce the restoration of all deposed judges including Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry according to a promise made by the president of Pakistan and myself," Mr Gilani said.

      The concession - which many will see as nothing less than capitulation by a faltering, stumbling government - came as thousands of protesters led by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif - were bearing down on Islamabad to take part in a sit-in outside the parliament building. Mr Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) led the convoy after defying a house arrest order in Lahore.

      Earlier, in scenes that underlined Pakistan’s turmoil and deepened international concern about the country’s future, police in Lahore had tried to break up thousands of demonstrators gathered in the centre of Lahore as they prepared to make their way to Islamabad. They fired many rounds of tear gas and plastic bullets in running battles with black-suited lawyers and the government’s political opponents.

      "You have seen that the entire country has been turned into a police state. They have blocked all roads, they have used all sorts of unlawful tactics," said Mr Sharif, standing on the steps of his home. "These are the decisive moments."

      The increasingly unpopular government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari had been desperate to prevent thousands of lawyers and political opponents taking part in the march to Islamabad. Mr Zardari - opposed to the reinstatement because of fears the judge might reopen corruption charges against him - had ordered the arrest of thousands of lawyers and blocked major roads. However, the demonstrators set off, vowing to go as far as they could. "It doesn’t matter if we get all the way," said Bushra Ahsan, wife of Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the lawyers’ leaders. "We will try."

      The decision to reinstate Mr Chaudhry, fired by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2007, will for now defuse the crisis that has gripped the country and triggered fears in the West that the country’s political leaders were being distracted from efforts to confront a growing militancy threatening Pakistan.

      However, in the longer term, Mr Zardari’s repression of the protesters and the way in which he begrudgingly made the concession, his back against the wall, will leave him and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) politically weakened. By contrast, Mr Sharif has projected an image of strength and stands to gain from leading a successful movement against the president, who has been the focus of mounting popular anger.

      "This is a victory for the people of this country," lawyers’ leader Baz Mohammad Kakar said after Mr Gilani’s announcement. "Chaudhry is the first chief justice in the history of Pakistan who has proved himself to be a judge for the people, as a chief justice for the people."

      The lawyers’ movement received a boost last month when Mr Sharif threw his full weight behind it after he and his brother, Shahbaz, were banned from elected office by the Supreme Court. Mr Zardari then dismissed the government led by Shahbaz in the Punjab province, the wealthiest in Pakistan and politically the most important. Mr Gilani repeated a pledge first made Saturday to appeal that verdict to the Supreme Court.

      In recent days, US and British officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, had spoken to both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, urging them to reach a deal. Today, the US Embassy in Islamabad issued a statement welcoming the development. "This is a statesmanlike decision taken to defuse a serious confrontation, and the apparent removal of this long-standing national issue is a substantial step towards national reconciliation," it said.

      The clashes between police and lawyers on Sunday outside Lahore’s High Court and the British-built colonial-era General Post Office echoed those in late 2007 when Mr Musharraf declared a state of emergency and launched a fierce crackdown on his political opponents. Among those being targeted at the time were members of the PPP, who now control the government.

      Many of those yesterday being dragged away by police and staggering blindly through clouds of choking tear gas were furious that the people they marched with just 18 months ago were now deploying the same authoritarian tactics used by the military dictatorship.

      "Mr Zardari has become a civilian dictator," said Kamran Shafi, a former aide to the president’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto, and one of those waving placards. "Sadly all this is happening because he broke his promises to reinstate the chief justice. I was Benazir’s press secretary and we kept the country going?What is going on now is repression."

      Many in the crowd were supporters of Mr Sharif. However, the movement has also garnered support from an assortment of Pakistan’s political parties and civil society. Those adding their support to the lawyers ranged from Islamists whose ultimate aim is the introduction of Sharia law to secular liberal women wearing designer sunglasses.

      "The country sees the seriousness of this," said Seema Aziz, a member of the campaign group, Concerned Citizens of Pakistan. "The people here are unarmed but the police are acting as if they are [dealing with] armed invaders."

      Yet as it transpired, protestors scored a considerable victory when two senior police officials overseeing the operation resigned their position rather than continue the violent crackdown against demonstrators. The pair were hailed as heroes as the police lines then melted away, clearing the path for demonstrators to start the journey towards Islamabad.

      Pakistan's Swat gets sharia courts
      March 17, 2009


      Seven sharia (Islamic law) courts have opened in Pakistan's northwest Swat valley region as part of a peace agreement signed between tribal leaders and the government last month.

      Authorities said two qazis, or judges trained in Islamic law, reviewed around 30 minor cases in Mingora, the largest city in Swat, on Tuesday.

      The provincial government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) had agreed to introduce sharia as part of a ceasefire deal with the so-called Pakistani Taliban in Swat in February, but had faced criticism in recent weeks for foot-dragging.

      US officials have expressed their concern that the region could become a safe-haven for anti-government fighters.

      Mullah Sufi Muhammad, the local religious leader who negotiated the deal, had threatened to relaunch regional protests if Islamic courts were not established quickly.

      Court controversy

      Sufi Muhammad, who leads Tehrik-e-Nifaz Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM), or movement for the introduction of sharia, has called on all non-sharia judges in Swat valley to stand down from their posts.

      At least 16 government-appointed judges were reported to have not turned up for work in Swat following the edict.

      Al Jazeera's Hamidullah Khan said the move puts Sufi Muhammad at odds with the NWFP provincial assembly, which had earlier decided that judges appointed by the government should continue on in their roles.

      However, Moulana Rizwanullah, Sufi Muhammad's son and deputy, said the TNSM would not allow any other law systems to contradict sharia.

      He reiterated Sufi Muhammad's statements that there are no non-sharia judges in Islam, adding that there is also no concept of a lawyer.

      Islamic supreme court

      Sufi Muhammad's group also said it would open a Dar ul-Qaza, or Islamic supreme court, where people could appeal against the decisions of qazis.

      The decision of the Dar ul-Qaza would be final, the TSNM said, and cannot be challenged in any other Pakistani court, religious or otherwise.

      Sufi Muhammad further said he would oversee the Swat valley legal system, and upon finding any perceived flaws with any of the qazis, he would not hesitate to replace them.

      The provincial government has not yet responded to Sufi Muhammad's statements.

      Fighting broke out in Swat in late 2007 after Sufi Muhammad was arrested by the government.

      Maulana Fazlullah, Sufi Muhammad's son-in-law and leader of the Taliban in Swat, had demanded the religious leader's release, as well as the introduction of sharia in the area.

      Fazlullah's fighters, who control much of the valley, declared an indefinite ceasefire following the February peace deal and the Pakistan army suspended its operations in the region.

      At least 1,200 people were killed in the violence and thousands more were forced to flee their homes.

      Why Pakistan cares about Chaudhry
      March 16, 2009


      Why is Pakistan's deposed chief justice causing such a political storm?

      Iftikhar Chaudhry became a supreme court judge in 2000 and was appointed as the youngest ever chief justice in June 2005.

      He was sacked from the position by Pervez Musharraf, who led Pakistan from 1999 to 2008, and the campaign for his reinstatement, which has seen multiple street protests, became a popular cause in Pakistan.

      When Ali Asif Zardari, who took over as leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) on the death of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, became president, he formed a coalition on the basis that he would reinstate Chaudhry.

      Zardari enticed Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to join him by promising to reinstate Chaudhry but Sharif soon declared it was apparent Zardari was going back this agreement and pulled out of the government.

      Why is Chaudhry such a controversial figure?

      As chief justice, Chaudhry used his position to reopen a number of cases, including one into the disappearance of people picked up by security agencies on suspicion of being involved in "terrorism".

      He ordered the security agencies to produce people, thought to be "missing", in court.

      He upset a number of prominent people, including Shaukat Aziz, prime minister under Musharraf, by taking up a case looking into the privatisation of a steel firm and cancelling the sale.

      Chaudhry was also widely expected to try and insist Musharraf stand down as army chief - a constitutional requirement - in order to seek another term as president.

      What happened next?

      Musharraf's administration pressured Chaudhry to quit, but he refused to go, and on March 9, 2007, Musharraf suspended Chaudhry, accusing him of abusing his position.

      A panel of judges was established to look into the accusations against Chaudhry, who appointed Aitzaz Ahsan, a parliamentarian and former minister from the PPP, to lead his defence team.

      Protesting lawyers, led by Ahsan, held rallies to demand the independence of the judiciary and both the PPP and the PML-N got behind the cause.

      In July 2007, the judges delivered the first ever finding against a military ruler by lifting Musharraf's suspension of Chaudhry.

      Musharraf engineered his re-election anyway by a subservient parliament in October without stepping down as army chief and while the supreme court allowed the vote to go ahead, it deliberated over whether the result should stand.

      Musharraf declared emergency rule, sacked the judges and only reinstated those who took a fresh oath of office, which Chaudhry refused to do.

      Having secured the presidency, Musharraf stepped down as army chief.

      Chaudhry declared Musharraf's actions unconstitutional.

      With Musharraf gone, why was Chaudhry not reinstated?

      The PPP came to power off the back of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the popular sentiment over the judges.

      But after it won elections, despite reinstating most of the judges sacked by Musharraf, Chaudhry remained deposed.

      Analysts say Zardari worries that Chaudhry could rule Musharraf an illegal president and overturn an amnesty given to Zardari and Bhutto in 2007 that allowed them to return to Pakistan without fear of prosecution on corruption charges, which they said were politically motivated.

      They say that Zardari is resisting reinstating the judges for fear they might revoke his protection from corruption charges.

      "The return of Benazir Bhutto and Zardari to Pakistan took place under a deal with Mushrraf in 2007. As part of the deal all the corruption charges, through a special presidential ordinance called NRO [National Reconciliation Ordinance], were removed, against Zardari especially," Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of international relations at Islamabad's Qaid-e-Azam University, told Al Jazeera.

      "The NRO remains, but the fear of the Zardari-led regime is, if they restore chief justice Chaudhry - given his assertive background - the NRO might be revoked and then obviously all those charges will come back to haunt Zardari and other party leaders."

      Following intense opposition protest, the government climbed down and on March 16, 2009, announced that Chaudhry would be reinstated.

      The date given for his reinstatement is March 21.

      Pakistan military 'forced rethink on judge'

      President's decision to bow to pressure and reinstate chief justice is hailed as historic moment in the evolution of Pakistan's fragile democracy

      By Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich in Islamabad


      The line started at the gate, turned at the steps, passed through the front door and then slipped along a hallway before heading down some steps. There, in a downstairs room, surrounded by colleagues and beaming as if he were a child on his birthday, stood Iftikhar Chaudhry, shaking hands with the long, endless line and receiving a million congratulations. "I feel good," he declared, extending a large, fleshy hand and pumping enthusiastically.

      On an historic day in which Pakistan's government was forced into an embarrassing capitulation to its political opponents and reinstated the former chief justice, it appeared as if everyone in the country wanted to meet Mr Chaudhry. No matter that the government's hand had been forced as much by the intervention of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani as by the forces of democracy, Islamabad buzzed with euphoria about the restoration of the country's chief judge, ousted in 2007 by Pervez Musharraf.

      Young and old, men and women, dancing Muslims and Christian bagpipe bands – everyone wanted to join in the celebrations for what was a rare feel-good event in a country where headlines are more often concerned with violence and political turmoil. "It feels like the country is finally moving towards democracy," said Bilquees Khan, one of five female law students gathered outside Mr Chaudhry's house.

      The decision to reinstate the judge – announced by the Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani in a 6am televised address – came after a climb-down by the government of President Asif Ali Zardari following clashes in Lahore between police and demonstrators who had gathered in advance of a march to Islamabad. The demonstrators planned to hold a sit-in in front of the parliament after three weeks of confrontation between the government and its opponents.

      Mr Zardari – opposed to the reinstatement of Mr Chaudhry out of concern he might reopen corruption charges against him – had been under intense pressure to end the stand-off with his opponents, made up of thousands of lawyers and supporters of his rival Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). In recent days he had taken calls from Mrs Clinton and the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and held three meetings with General Kayani, most recently on Sunday evening, something that raised concerns in some quarters that the army has not stopped intervening in the country's politics.

      Mr Chaudhry, well known for his judicial investigations into a series of cases that embarrassed Pakistan's political establishment, was twice fired by General Musharraf, first in March 2007 and then later that year when the dictator imposed a state of emergency.

      Experts said his restoration is important for Pakistan in several ways. At one level it marks a victory for those wishing to strengthen democratic institutions in Pakistan. At a practical level it also draws a line under two years of dispute triggered by Mr Chaudhry's dismissal. His ousting set in motion a series of events including the state of emergency, a backlash against General Musharraf and ultimately the dictator's resignation last summer. "It is a very important step forward," said Talat Hussain, a political commentator. "Without restoring the chief justice there would have been no acknowledgement that he had been illegally removed or of General Musharraf's actions against the judiciary."

      While the decision to reappoint Mr Chaudhry – he will be restored next Saturday – has defused the immediate political crisis facing Mr Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the forced manner in which the concession was made will have raised more questions about his political judgement. The ugly scenes in Lahore, where police fired tear-gas and plastic bullets at peaceful protesters, will also have thrown into doubt his ability to lead this troubled country.

      The successful outcome of the campaign to reinstate the judge has also strengthened the image of Mr Sharif, keen to position himself as an alternative to Mr Zardari. "From here, God willing, the fate of this nation will change," he told reporters. "From here, a journey of development will start. From here, a revolution will come."

      In addition to restoring Mr Chaudhry and nine other ousted judges, the government said it would push for a review of a Supreme Court decision that last month forced the suspension of the provincial government of Punjab, led by Mr Sharif's brother, Shahbaz. Last night, for many Pakistanis, it was enough just to join in the celebrations surrounding the "people's power" victory. "This is a hugely important moment for Pakistan," said a businessman, Mohammed Yasin, who had joined the long line to shake hands with the man receiving the movie-star treatment. "If the judiciary is not independent, no country can move forward."

      How Iftikhar Chaudhry offended two presidents

      When was the chief justice sacked?

      He was first fired by Pervez Musharraf on 9 March 2007, then reinstated by his own Supreme Court in July. In November 2007, General Musharraf fired Mr Chaudhry a second time, placing him under house arrest.

      Why was he fired?

      Initially, General Musharraf claimed corruption. In reality, he was angered by the judge's investigations into cases such as the "disappeared" people in Baluchistan. Mr Chaudhry was fired a second time because General Musharraf feared the Supreme Court would rule his 2007 re-election invalid.

      Who rallied to the judge's cause?

      Mr Chaudhry was championed by thousands of lawyers who believed Pakistan needed an independent judiciary. However, as he travelled around the country giving speeches, he became a lightning rod for various disaffected groups.

      Why was Mr Zardari so determined not to reinstate him?

      The President is reportedly concerned that the judge might decide to invalidate the National Reconciliation Ordinance issued by General Musharraf in October 2007. This gave amnesty to politicians and officials accused of corruption. The order opened the way for both Mr Zardari and his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan from exile.

      What will Mr Chaudhry's reinstatement mean?

      It has both real and symbolic importance. It represents a victory for civil society groups determined to strengthen independent institutions and sends a signal that the judiciary should be free of political intervention. It has also defused the country's immediate political crisis. The government, however badly weakened, can stumble on to fight another day.

      Andrew Buncombe

      Pakistani rape victim marries officer who took up case


      A Pakistani woman who was gang-raped on the orders of a village court but went on to challenge her attackers and win international respect for her bravery, has now married.

      The brutal realities of rural Pakistan mean that many who suffer Mukhtar Mai's ordeal commit suicide, but she decided to campaign on behalf of oppressed women and open a school for girls.

      On Sunday she surprised the world by marrying a police officer who investigated her case and acted as a bodyguard.

      In an interview in her remote home village of Meerwala, in southern Punjab province, the 37-year-old said that the police constable, Nasir Abbas Gabol, had flirted with her even while he was deputed to protect her. "He offered to marry me but I flatly refused," she said.

      It was only after Gabol, 30, apparently infatuated with her, threatened to kill himself if she did not agree, that she relented. He was already married and Mai was reluctant to trespass on his existing marriage, agreeing finally to become his second wife after the first wife also implored her. In Pakistan, it is legal for Muslim men to take up to four wives.

      "I would adjust (to marriage) because the co-wife is very positive," she said.

      "Every woman feels a strange joy on getting marriage which cannot be explained, [but] this was very difficult for me."

      The nightmare began for Mai in 2002 when her teenage brother was accused of having an affair with a girl from another tribe, the Mastoi Baloch, which had higher social standing than her own. Her brother was captured, beaten and sodomised by men from the Mastoi Baloch.

      But, not satisfied by this, a traditional village court ordered that Mukhtar Mai be gang-raped as punishment. Four men dragged her into a barn and raped her. The case remains before the courts.

      Mai said that she was still receiving threats from local "influential people and landlords" to drop the charges and police still guard her home. She was awarded around $8,000 back in 2002 by the Pakistani government, which she used to start the first primary school for girls in the village.

      She also began a group to campaign for women's rights. Mai insisted that marriage would not change her mission and she would continue to live with her parents, not move into Gabol's village.

      "I cannot betray my cause of giving the rights to oppressed women in the society facing all sorts of violence," she said.

      "I think he (Gabol) will be supportive. The precondition of marriage is that we would not disturb each others' lives."
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