Pakistan Agrees To Reinstate Chief Justice

In a stunning turnabout, the Pakistani government has agreed to reinstate the former chief justice of the supreme court, who has become a symbol of judicial independence. Word of the rehabilitation of the popular chief justice followed a tumultuous weekend in Pakistan when the government tried but failed to prevent a huge protest by opposition leaders and lawyers.

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In a major turnabout, the Pakistani government has agreed to reinstate the former chief justice of the nation's supreme court. That news follows a tumultuous weekend in Pakistan, in which the government tried but failed to prevent a huge protest organized by opposition leaders and lawyers. NPR's Anne Garrels has this report from Islamabad.

ANNE GARRELS: The government's concession was broadcast in a dawn address to the nation by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

(Soundbite of foreign language)

GARRELS: He said the government will restore all the judges fired by former President and Army chief Pervez Musharraf, including the chief justice, as President Zardari had long promised. But President Asif Ali Zardari had repeatedly backed down on that promise. It's widely believed Zardari feared Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a maverick who had challenged the military and special interests, would repeal an amnesty and corruption charges that have been granted to Zardari.

In the days running up to a planned sit-in outside the parliament, the government had cracked down on lawyers and political activists, all those who were detained are now to be released. Until the last minute, the president remained defiant, despite pressure from US officials. Zardari imposed bans on public meetings and blocked the country's most popular TV station, but cracks appeared within his own party with some key figures accusing him of behaving like a dictator.

And when thousands turned out in the city of Lahore yesterday, to back the lawyers and political opponents, security forces did not or could not control the crowds, the police melted away. Despite the ban on public meetings, opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, led a protest rally and set of with his supporters for the planned sit-in in the capital.

(Soundbite of people demonstrating)

GARRELS: Even before the prime minister spoke, word leaked out the government would be backing down and jubilant crowds gathered in the early hours at the chief justice's house here in Islamabad. Mohamed Younis Adeel(ph) a civil servant was among them. He says Chief Justice Chaudhry is a hero.

Mr. MOHAMED YOUNIS ADEEL(ph) (Civil Servant, Pakistan): Stood against the dictators, the dictators asked him to do wrong things but he stood and refused him. We want democracy.

GARRELS: Shabad(ph), a policeman, was relieved he would not be asked to battle the demonstrators.

Mr. SHABAD(ph) (Policeman, Pakistan): I hope the government do this. I hope. This is the very difficult - I know, this is a good day.

GARRELS: Usmal Ahmed Rancha(ph), a lawyer, was shocked and delighted at the turn of events.

Ms. USMAL AHMED RANCHA(ph) (Lawyer, Pakistan): I feel happy and I wanted to see, you know, the things going on with my own eyes.

GARRELS: She says Zardari badly misjudged popular support for both the lawyers and Nawaz Sharif.

Ms. RANCHA: He was not expecting, in his wildest dreams, to be - Nawaz Sharif and his brother - to be so strong, you know? The judges have made, you know, the lawyers have been struggling. Though I myself, I'm a lawyer, they have been struggling for the past two years but they have not been able to press the government to such an extent.

GARRELS: Zardari had complicated matters last month, when he ejected the Sharif's party from power in the key province of Punjab, following a supreme court ruling banning the Sharifs from public office. Zardari was widely seen as pushing that supreme court decision, yet another example, people believed, of political pressure on the judiciary. The government now says it will support a review of that decision. And this morning, Prime Minister Gilani reached out to Nawaz Sharif, saying let's move ahead together. The lawyers and Sharif have called off the planned sit-in at Parliament. The U.S. has applauded what it calls the statesman-like act by President Zardari, hoping this will diffuse a dangerous confrontation and allow Pakistan to address the nation's urgent needs.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Islamabad.

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