Protestors force Musharraf to reinstate chief justice

Lawyers and pro-democracy activists have struck a victory for the rule of law in Pakistan after succeeding in having the country’s chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry reinstated.

The Supreme Court verdict last month (20 July) ends the four months of conflict in the country since Chaudhry was made ‘non-functional’ by Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, on 9 March 2007 on charges including misconduct and abuse of office.

His suspension by a then newly convened group of five Supreme Court judges known as the Supreme Judicial Council led to lawyers and judges boycotting the courts and clashing with police. The tension escalated into violence on 12 May, when 42 people were killed, most of them Chaudhry supporters, after the government tried to stop the chief justice addressing crowds in the Pakistani capital Karachi.

Many Pakistanis see his reinstatement as a milestone in the struggle both for an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

Appointed in 2005 by Musharraf himself, Chaudhry has been a stalwart supporter of the rule of law and a vocal critic of Musharraf. His actions include having launched inquiries into the disappearance of suspected insurgents in the Balochistan province; outlawing child marriage; and stopping the privatisation of a major steel company because of irregularities in the bidding process.

During his four-month trial Chaudhry led parties of supporters around the country and addressed huge crowds on the need for judges to be free of political pressure, while his principal lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, constantly exhorted the Supreme Court judges to protect and support their chief.

The trial has attracted international concern. As reported by The Lawyer (30 April), this sparked an investigation into his arrest by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a non-governmental organisation comprising 60 eminent judges concerned with the rule of law.

“No country has much of a desirable future without respect for the rule of law and the independence of its judiciary,” said Roger Smith, director of the ICJ’s UK section, Justice. “We’re delighted to see Chaudhry’s reinstatement.”

However, the victory has raised questions about Pakistan’s political future. Musharraf wants to set up a caretaker government to supervise Pakistan’s coming election, which is due to take place in October, and also wants the sitting parliament, in which he has a majority, to elect him as president for another five years before he dissolves it. In addition, he wants to retain his powers as army chief, despite constitutional obstacles.

The opposition is expected to challenge him on all three points, with the Supreme Court, now once again led by Chaudhry, to be the final arbiter.

The president says he accepts the Supreme Court’s judgment and that the elections will be held on time.