Pakistan's Top Court Warns Against Sacking Judges

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari i i

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari speaks at an August meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari speaks at an August meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia.

AP

If the country's battle against extremists and the aftermath of historic floods weren't enough, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari is locked in a tense drama with the country's judiciary.

Pakistan's Supreme Court today restrained the government from taking any action to fire judges who would expose President Zardari to criminal prosecution.

The court said dismissing judges by executive order would be treason.

The court's stern warning was the latest in a drama that has the president protecting himself against corruption charges and the court protecting the independence of the judiciary.

The confrontation has reached a new, and more disturbing level.

Capturing the mood, the English daily newspaper Dawn carried the headline "Midnight Alarm in the Capital."

The Supreme Court hastily convened at the home of the chief justice late Thursday night. Television stations reported that Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani was planning to reverse the order that reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and dozens of judges in March 2009. Their firing in 2007 by then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf touched off political turmoil that ended the general's rule.

The justices say their reinstatement was a settled issue and that no executive order can revoke it. "They are the judges and they will remain as judges unless they are removed by a constitutional process," says retired Justice Tariq Mehmood.

So incensed was the court that at 2:30 a.m. it issued a summons for Attorney General Maulvi Anwar ul Haq. During an extraordinary session Friday morning, the court asked him to present a written assurance that the government would not take any unconstitutional step.

The prime minister denied the reports that justices might be removed, but issued no written guarantee. The soft-spoken attorney general returned to court to say that he needed more time — that Gilani was busy. One dismayed justice shot back: "Could there be any more important issue than this one?"

The reports of a clandestine plan to remove the judges sent a shiver down the spine of the legal community that fought so hard to restore them. They packed the courtroom — and the steps outside.

President of the Supreme Court Bar Association Qazi Anwar said the reports carried on private television channels had credibility — and said that it seemed as though "something was cooking."

Iftikhar Hussein Gilani is a prominent lawyer and former figure in President Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, the party of his late wife, former President Benazir Bhutto. At first he said he was inclined to believe that the justices overreacted. But the attorney general's response suggested to him to that government harbored bad intentions toward the judiciary.

"Because the Supreme Court asked them for a pretty simple thing — they said kindly give us a statement in writing that we will not violate the Constitution, period! — and that they are not prepared to give [making] stupid excuses that the prime minister was not available," Iftikhar Hussein Gilani says. "But I hope now that better senses prevail."

The Supreme Court and the president have been at loggerheads since the court's landmark ruling to reopen corruption cases including money-laundering charges against Zardari. The government has tested the court’s patience with delays in carrying out its order to revive old graft cases.

Law Minister Babar Awan, meanwhile, gave a spirited defense of the government Friday night, insisting that the prime minister's verbal assurance that the judges weren't in jeopardy should have been enough.

The court reconvenes Monday.

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