Pakistan: Deposed Chief Justice to Be Reinstated

The announcement came shortly after 5 a.m. In an amazing turnaround, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani came on television to declare that the country's deposed chief justice was being restored to his position, thus bringing an end to what was shaping up to be a bruising battle for the survival of his government and President Asif Ali Zardari.

"I restore the deposed chief justice and others according to the promise made by me and the president," said Gillani, after a tumultuous night of high-level meetings including a key session with the anxious Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Gillani also ordered the release of detainees and urged all sides to move forward. Rumors that a dramatic move was afoot had been making the rounds and gained ground when cordons inside the capital began to be removed.

Celebrating the news, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and lawyers' movement leader Aitzaz Ahsan, who were separately en route to Islamabad, called off the national protest march that had begun last week. "I never had any doubts about our success," Ahsan told NEWSWEEK in a phone call. The news was also welcomed by the United States, which called the decision "statesmanlike." In a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Washington called for "all Pakistanis and their political representatives to work together, with the support of their friends and allies, to peacefully strengthen their democracy and ensure a positive dialogue as they move forward to deal with the many issues confronting them."

Kayani and diplomats from the U.S. and U.K. had been urging Zardari to allow the protest march and sit-in in the capital, to release detainees and to compromise on the issue of restoring the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to defuse political tensions between erstwhile allies Zardari and Sharif. The prime minister's startling announcement came hours before Islamabad was set to be besieged by tens of thousands of protestors and hours after the government's authority eroded in full public view in Pakistan's second-largest city, Sharif's hometown of Lahore.

Disobeying orders to detain opposition leader Sharif, police simply stood by as he left his Lahore home Sunday afternoon with several thousand supporters to participate in the sit-in in the capital. Similarly, police didn't detain Ahsan, the leader of the lawyers' movement. Heeding Sharif's call for civil disobedience, some government officials in Lahore—who had earlier in the day resisted the protestors by ordering police to use batons and tear gas on crowds in front of the Lahore High Court—either relented or joined in. Lahore's district coordination officer, the city's top bureaucrat, announced his resignation outside the court as protesters cheered.

The government had placed shipping containers to seal all exits from Lahore and all entries to Islamabad to scuttle the protest march. Sharif's party overcame these impediments handily, hiring cranes to remove all barriers and getting help from sympathetic police officials. Speaking to the party faithful Saturday night, Sharif dismissed threats to his personal safety and declared that change was inevitable. "No one can stop this people's tide," he said, evoking the populist rhetoric of Zardari's late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007.

Zardari had vowed to snuff out the protest march and sit-in, which sought to restore the judges, including Chaudhry, who were sacked under a martial-law order in November 2007 by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf. Embarrassed by the meltdown of police discipline, the government announced that it hadn't tried to detain Sharif in the first place. Zardari's late Saturday night offer to undo the overthrow of Sharif's government in the Punjab province was also rebuffed by Sharif. The official sense of panic was apparent in the measures it took to secure Islamabad, emptying university hostels to prevent on-campus protests, disabling text-message services, attempting to muzzle cable-news channels and closing down all schools and offices. Zardari had also been weakened by differences emerging within his political party, with two senior cabinet members resigning in the last week.

Sharif's party polled the second-highest number of votes in last year's elections and had briefly been in a coalition with Zardari's Pakistani People's Party. Although 57 of the 62 sacked judges have been reinstated, the parties disagreed on Chaudhry. Zardari said the judge had become "politicized." Sharif said Zardari was afraid the judge was too independent-minded. Other politicians had said they expected Chaudhry to try Musharraf for violating the Constitution during his nine-year rule and reopen corruption cases against Zardari. Relations were further strained when the Punjab government, led by Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, was dismissed last month through a controversial court order. The province has since been ruled through federal fiat. But with the restoration of the top judge and Sharif's strengthened position, his brother's dismissed government is now likely to be reinstated.