Reproduced from the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2009 


ISLAMABAD -- Thousands of Pakistanis celebrated the reinstatement of the country's chief justice Sunday, stirring hopes for an empowered judiciary that can buttress democratic rule in this turbulent nation.

[Pakistan]Associated Press

Pakistanis chanted slogans during the National flag hoisting ceremony at the residence of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.


The return of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry caps a two-year movement by Pakistan's lawyers that helped bring down one government and almost toppled a second. It is being viewed as a victory for the rule of law and democracy in this country of 170 million people that is struggling to overcome a Taliban insurgency.

"This could well turn out to be a seminal and transformational development in the maturing of Pakistan's democracy," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to Washington and a political commentator.

How Mr. Chaudhry will preside over Pakistan's highest court is a pivotal question for a nation often at the edge of instability. While supporters are pressing to return the Supreme Court to the activist role that led to his firing, others fear an over-assertive judiciary could lead to renewed confrontation with the government.

The chief justice and dozens of other judges were fired during a brief emergency rule imposed in 2007 by then-President Pervez Musharraf, a general who took power in a coup eight years earlier.

Mr. Musharraf was forced out last year, months after his allies were badly defeated in parliamentary elections by a coalition that campaigned in part on restoring the judges.

But his successor, President Asif Ali Zardari, stalled on reinstating the judges. Opponents said he feared Mr. Chaudhry would invalidate an amnesty deal that saw corruption cases against Mr. Zardari dropped. The deal was made between Mr. Zardari's late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Zardari has insisted the chief justice had become too personally politicized to preside over the top court. He reversed himself a week ago as the lawyers' movement and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, prepared to lead thousands of people for a massive rally in Islamabad.

Mr. Chaudhry has so far remained quiet about his plans. On Sunday, he busied himself with routine matters, such as approving panels of jurists, the court said in a statement.

Supporters are urging Mr. Chaudhry to challenge the amnesty of the politically wounded president. "Nothing can stop the court to take up the petition challenging the amnesty granted to some political leaders," said Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the lawyers' movement, which fought to have Mr. Chaudhry restored.

Mr. Chaudhry could also reopen cases of people who have gone missing after being detained on terror-related charges. Those hearings proved an embarrassment to the government of Mr. Musharraf and may also raise questions about Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S. in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Many are also waiting to see if he will remove himself from cases involving political figures, such as Mr. Sharif. The Supreme Court, which last month banned Mr. Sharif from holding political office because of prior criminal convictions, is preparing to hear an appeal of the case.

Mr. Zardari, for his part, said he will respect the court. "I will bow to the power and majesty of the judges," he said during the weekend at a farewell dinner for the departing chief justice, Abdul Hameed Dogar.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, meanwhile, had lunch with Mr. Sharif. Mr. Gilani has suggested he wants Mr. Sharif to rejoin the coalition government, which Mr. Sharif quit over Mr. Zardari's refusal to reinstate the judges. There was no word of such a deal from the meeting, but Mr. Gilani said he and Mr. Sharif agreed to end their standoff and work toward bringing political stability to Pakistan.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A9