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Pakistan’s top judge back in office


Islamabad : Pakistan’s sacked top judge Iftikhar Chaudhry got back his office Sunday, a week after the government gave in to protests that took the nuclear-armed nation on the threshold of civil unrest.

Chaudhry resumed his post as Supreme Court Chief Justice at midnight and immediately assigned panels of judges to hear cases whose dates were also fixed, according to a court statement.

Chaudhry and 60 other jurists were fired by former president Pervez Musharraf in November 2007, amid fears that the judiciary might disqualify him for simultaneously holding the offices of president and the military chief.

The move triggered mass protests by lawyers and anti-Musharraf parties, which trounced the former military strongman’s political allies in February 2008 elections while rallying on the issue of judges’ ouster.

An unnatural alliance formed by the widower of slain premier Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif forced Musharraf to quit the presidency in August over threats of impeachment.

Most of the deposed judges resumed their posts, but Chaudhry refused to buckle under pressure and take a fresh oath under a controversial presidential law.

Zardari replaced Musharraf but backed out on promises to reinstate Chaudhry, making Sharif sit in the opposition.

The differences reached crisis proportions last month when a controversial Supreme Court verdict barred Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, from elected office.

The decision also brought down Shahbaz’s regional government in the most-populous province of Punjab, sparking a new wave of agitations.

Lawyers’ groups and opposition parties launched a decisive cross-country protest rally dubbed the “long march” last week, threatening the collapse of the year-old government led by Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party.

Hours before the rally was scheduled to march on the capital city Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani Monday agreed to reinstate the judge to defuse the political crisis.

The government later notified that Chaudhry would take charge of his office March 22, a day after the retirement of the chief justice who replaced him in 2007.

Sunday, a large crowd gathered outside Chaudhry’s residence in Islamabad for a symbolic flag-hoisting ceremony to mark his return to the Supreme Court.

Chaudhry did not take part of the event, but his spokesman called the raising of Pakistan’s flag “a symbol of the dawn of a new era”.

Analysts say Chaudhry, who is hailed as a champion of judicial activism, will be under public pressure to take up some high-profile cases like a review of the ban on Sharif brothers and challenges to an amnesty that cleared Zardari of graft charges.

But Chaudhry’s aides have already hinted that the chief justice might stay away from issues that could undermine his credibility.