Pakistan Government Split over Sacked Judges

Last month, the two main parties in Pakistan's new coalition government agreed to introduce a parliamentary resolution reinstating the senior judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf within 30 days of forming a government. Musharraf's enemies say once the judges are back, they'll declare his recent re-election as president as illegal. Wednesday is the deadline to reinstate the judges.

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From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour with new signs of trouble in Pakistan. A few weeks ago, the country seemed to be finally emerging from a nightmare. Pakistan's democratically elected government was sworn in after a period that included six weeks of emergency rule, Benazir Bhutto's assassination, and the bombing campaign by Islamist militants. Now, a rift has appeared within Pakistan's coalition government and with it, fears that more unrest is on the way.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the capital, Islamabad.

PHILIP REEVES: The two big parties that dominate Pakistan's coalition government are having their first row. It's over the country's judiciary. To understand, we need to step back in time.

President PERVEZ MUSHARRAF (Pakistan): Pakistan is on the verge of destabilization.

REEVES: When President Pervez Musharraf declared an emergency in November, this allowed him to throw out 60 judges, including Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Musharraf had been trying to get rid of Chaudhry for months.

(Soundbite of protest)

REEVES: Week after week, lawyers and civil society activists took to the streets to support the judge. Their movement morphed into a campaign against military rule, grabbing the attention of the world. Some of those judges sacked back in November, Chaudhry included, were from Pakistan's Supreme Court. They were kicked out just as the court was about to decide whether to invalidate Musharraf's reelection as President.

The two parties dominating the coalition government are Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party led by her widower, Asif Zardari, and his junior partner, the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Last month, these two men signed an agreement. This agreement said they'd introduce a parliamentary resolution restoring the sacked judges within 30 days of forming a government. The deadline expires tomorrow, but it seems the sacked judges will have to wait. So will Amina Masood Janjua.

Ms. AMINA MASOOD JANJUA: It's been extremely difficult. All the time it's a continuous misery. It's torture, unending torture.

REEVES: Nearly three years ago, Janjua's husband was abducted by Pakistani intelligence. She hasn't seen or heard from him since. Janjua now heads an organization highlighting the case of more than 500 missing persons believed detained by the security services. Chief Justice Chaudhry was investigating some of these cases before he was fired.

Ms. JANJUA: I would say that Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was the driving force. He was like the main person who was checking the illegal activities of the government and making the bureaucracy answerable in the court

REEVES: That's why Janjua is among those who wants Chaudhry back on the bench as soon as possible. The problem is Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif disagree over restoring Pakistan's judiciary. Nawaz Sharif's position is clear; he's never forgiven Musharraf for throwing him out as prime minister in a coup in 1999. Sharif made restoring the judiciary his election rallying cry. He makes no secret he hopes the restored judges will remove Musharraf.

Mr. NAWAZ SHARIF (Former Pakistani Prime Minister; Leader, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz): Accountability is a must. Of all those people who've broken the laws, subverted the constitution, who are guilty of sacking the judges, who are guilty of house arrests to the judges, don't you think the nation should carry out an accountability of these illegal unconstitutional actions?

REEVES: Zardari, Bhutto's widower, has a different approach. He spent 11 years in jail on corruption charges, though he was never convicted. He argues Pakistan's judiciary has always been politically tainted. That's why he says the sacked judges should be brought back, but, as he told the BBC, as part of a package of constitutional reforms.

Mr. ASIF ZARDARI (Co-Chairman, Pakistan Peoples Party): I'm not interested in only restoring the judges, I am interested in restoring judiciary, that rule of law, the majesty of law, so that no other Asif Zardari stays in prison under trial for eight years.

REEVES: Many Pakistanis believe Zardari is also worried that the restored judges might overturn an amnesty law pushed through by Musharraf, which protects Zardari from corruption charges. So what happens next? Zardari and Sharif are in negotiation. If there's no last minute breakthrough, Sharif may pull his party out of coalition government, although he'll probably carry on supporting the government from the outside for now. But it may not end there; the issue could turn in to the first big test of Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's political heir. Analyst Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais says he'll need to tread carefully.

Professor RASUL BAKSH RAIS (Political Science, Lums College, Pakistan): The truth is that the majority, overwhelming majority of Pakistanis and civil society want restoration of the judges and independent (unintelligible).

REEVES: If Zardari doesn't restore the judges, says Rais, there could be another political crisis in Pakistan.

Philip Reeves. NPR News, Islamabad.

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