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Moving across the Afghan border now to Pakistan, where today the Supreme Court restrained the government of President Asif Ali Zardari from firing judges who would expose the president to criminal prosecution. The court said dismissing judges by executive order would be treason.

Its stern warning is the latest in a high-stakes drama. On one side is the president protecting himself against corruption charges. On the other side is the country's high court trying to safeguard its own independence.

From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE McCARTHY: The confrontation between Pakistan's judiciary and the government 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 last night. Television stations reported that Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani was planning to reverse the order that reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and dozens of judges in March of 2009. Their firing in 2007 by then-President General Pervez Musharraf touched off political turmoil that ended his rule.

The justices say their reinstatement was a settled issue, and that no executive order can revoke it.

Retired Justice Tariq Mehmood agrees.

Mr. TARIQ MEHMOOD: They are the judges, and they will remain as judges unless they are removed through a constitutional process.

McCARTHY: So incensed was the court that at 2:30 a.m. it issued a summons for the attorney general. During an extraordinary session this 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 he needed more time - that the prime minister 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.

The 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, quote, "Something was cooking."

Mr. QAZI ANWAR (President, Supreme Court Bar Association): But your pudding was not ready. You were cooking a pudding, but it was not ready for eating.

McCARTHY: Iftikhar Hussain Gilani is a prominent lawyer and former figure in President Zardari's People's Party, the party of his late wife Benazir Bhutto. Gilani accused the government of bad intensions toward the judiciary.

Mr. IFTIKHAR HUSSAIN GILANI: 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 statement, they were prepared to give pretty stupid kind of excuses: The prime minister is not available. And I hope now that better sense will prevail.

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

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

The court reconvenes Monday.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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