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Pakistan Supreme Court Asserts Independence
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Pakistan Supreme Court Asserts Independence

World

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Pakistan's political crisis seems to be getting sharper. Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who was ousted by President Pervez Musharraf, plans to fly home on Monday to campaign for an end to General Musharraf's rule.

Officials for Mr. Sharif's party say that hundreds of their activists have been arrested in an attempt to curtail a massive pro-democracy welcome home rally for Mr. Sharif.

Yet, General Musharraf's biggest obstacle may not be Mr. Sharif, but Pakistan's Supreme Court.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Islamabad.

(Soundbite of protests)

PHILIP REEVES: This is what started it all, a decision by Pakistan's Supreme Court - to reinstate the country's chief justice after Musharraf tried to sack him. The verdict was the first time Pakistan's judiciary had defied a military government on a key issue.

It was a day Loya Wadji Hameti(ph) won't forget.

Ms. LOYA WADJI HAMETI (Resident, Pakistan): I burst into tears and I just couldn't stop crying.

REEVES: Hameti played a leading role in a nationwide campaign to get the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry restored.

Ms. HAMETI: And people are, like, here are you happy or are you sad? Why are you crying so much? I said, I just can't control myself. It was a very emotional moment, and I'm just grateful whatever happened happened.

(Soundbite of news report)

Unidentified Man (Reporter): What an extraordinary scene here at Pakistan's Supreme Court. The verdict has just come through.

REEVES: It was the 20th of July. Pakistan's political analysts went into overdrive. At last, they say, Pakistan has an independent judiciary that won't be intimidated by the government and the army. It was hard to know at the time if they were right. It seems they were, at least for now.

Mr. AYAZ AMIR(ph) (Commentator, Pakistan): This is a new kind of Pakistan.

REEVES: That's Ayaz Amir, a leading commentator. He says life in the new Pakistan isn't easy for Musharraf and his fellow generals.

Mr. AMIR: What they're worried about really is the Supreme Court. What will the Supreme Court do? Their worry has not been about Nawaz Sharif. The real worry really is on that building on Constitution Avenue called the Supreme Court.

REEVES: The chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, used to support Musharraf. Not anymore. Now the judge refuses to appear with Musharraf in public. Since Chaudhry was reinstated, the Supreme Court's repeatedly confronted the government. It's ordered the release of Pakistanis secretly detained by the intelligence services.

It's freed on bail one of Musharraf's most vocal political opponents, Javed Hashmi. And crucially it's ruled that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has a right to come home.

(Soundbite of men speaking)

REEVES: The Pakistani media gathered to listen to opposition leaders outlining the importance of Sharif's return. But Musharraf is pressing Sharif to stay away. His aides point out that Sharif went into exile in 2000 under a deal with Musharraf in which Sharif escaped imprisonment by agreeing to stay away for a decade.

The deal was brokered by the Saudis and the son of Lebanese assassinated leader Rafik al-Hariri. It's thought they're urging Sharif to abide by it. But to Iqbal Zafashakra(ph), a senior official in Sharif's party, the Supreme Court decision is far more important than the agreement.

Mr. IQBAL ZAFASHAKRA (Senior Official, Pakistan Muslim League): He has actually respected that agreement, in fact, eight years now. But now, it is a national duty for him to respond to the call of the people and the decision of the Supreme Court.

Mr. IMRAN KHAN (Member of Parliament): Bear in mind that our judiciary has never been independent. And that's the bane of a democracy.

REEVES: That's Imran Khan, a celebrated cricketer turned politician. He's part of an alliance pushing for democracy in Pakistan. He believes the Supreme Court is a crucial part of that process.

Mr. KHAN: Because if you don't have an independent judiciary, you can't have a genuine democracy. Controlled judiciary means controlled democracy. And that's what we've had and that's why we've struggled as a nation.

REEVES: Musharraf is trying to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. The general hopes this will secure him another term as president.

But Wadji Hameti says ultimately his future will be decided by the Supreme Court.

Ms. HAMETI: You see, he can strike a deal with whoever he likes, but anything and everything is likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court and he can't strike a deal with the Supreme Court.

REEVES: The court's being asked to rule on whether Musharraf can combine the posts of president and army chief. His opponents say he can't. And if Musharraf agrees to take off his uniform, the court's also being asked if he can again immediately run for president, though this violates a ban in Pakistan's constitution. Hameti believes under the law, Musharraf hasn't got a hope of winning.

Ms. HAMETI: There's absolutely no way - dead and buried, gone.

REEVES: Such, she says, is the new power of Pakistan's judiciary.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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