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Dial A for crisis

Sharif subsequently decided to opt for a street agitation, culminating in the Long March that he led after violating his house arrest in Lahore, writes Anees Jillani.

india Updated: Mar 16, 2009 23:09 IST

Excitement never ends in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Lameduck Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced on March 16, 2009, to a sleeping nation, that his government — with the concurrence of President Asif Ali Zardari — is reinstating the deposed Chief Justice (CJ) of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry, effective from March 22. Current CJ, Abdul Hameed Dogar, retires a day earlier.

Almost everybody in Pakistan is delighted with the outcome of this long-drawn struggle to reinstate Chaudhry, with the exception of a few staunch jiyalas (a term popularly used to describe PPP supporters), Pervez Musharraf and some judiciary members. The lawyers achieved what they had been struggling for since the imposition of the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) on November 3, 2007. Everyone else — the business and trading community, the police, who reluctantly had to control the demonstrators, and the relatives of hundreds of missing people allegedly picked up by the intelligence agencies — is heaving a sigh of relief .

Not much may change for the better. But the people of this unfortunate country desperately need a break. Chaudhry is a Punjabi-speaking judge settled in Balochistan. He was brought to the Supreme Court by Musharraf and later elevated to the post of CJ. He was part of the bench that validated the suspension of the Constitution, and its replacement by the PCO. The Supreme Court was boycotted by all the opposition forces, including some lawyers, for taking a pro-Musharraf stance for many years — until Chaudhry started taking suo motu actions on various issues, most notably in cases related to missing persons and misuse of farming plots for residential purposes by generals, including Musharraf and former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. He became a hero after cancelling privatisation of the Steel Mills, the biggest State-owned concern.

On March 9, 2007, Musharraf suspended him extra-constitutionally. This was not the first time in Pakistan’s history that a judge had been removed by a military ruler. However, Chaudhry again became a hero as he had earlier refused to resign despite being pressured by Musharraf, Aziz, the ISI and the Military Intelligence in a joint meeting at Musharraf’s army house. The rest is history.

Chaudhry challenged the proceedings of the Supreme Judicial Council, and was restored by the full bench of the court in a unanimous judgement. No one actually knows why Musharraf removed him. He remained the CJ until November 3, 2008, but was dropped again by Musharraf who replaced the Constitution by a PCO, under which many judges, including the CJ, refused to take oath.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, once political foes, had become allies while living in exile, and had signed a Charter of Democracy in 2006. Sharif was distressed when Bhutto negotiated her return behind his back but tolerated it. The bonhomie, however, was short-lived as Bhutto was assassinated. Zardari became her successor, and agreed in writing, with Sharif, to restore the CJ once his party came to power. Zardari, however, made some deals himself, including with Musharraf and the current CJ Abdul Hameed Dogar, and refused to lift the PCO. Instead, he invited all the deposed judges, including Chaudhry, to take a fresh oath, and refused to replace Dogar with Chaudhry. This impasse led to Sharif withdrawing from the federal cabinet and ultimately governor’s rule was imposed in Punjab.

Sharif subsequently decided to opt for a street agitation, culminating in the Long March that he led after violating his house arrest in Lahore. The Gilani government agreed to restore Chaudhry as the CJ within 12 hours. The government wouldn’t have succumbed to the pressure had it not been for the constant intervention by the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani and the American Ambassador to Islamabad. Also, Hillary Clinton telephoned both Sharif and Zardari, and the special envoy for Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, was in constant touch with all the parties concerned.

The restoration of Chaudhry as the CJ may not settle the legal imbroglio in totality as many issues remain unresolved. His restoration, however, proves again the power of at least the two ‘As’: Army and America. The third ‘A’ is watching in total amazement.

Anees Jillani is an advocate, Supreme Court of Pakistan.