Pakistan reinstates top judge, long march called off (Fourth Lead)

March 16th, 2009 - 1:00 pm ICT by IANS  

Nawaz Sharif Islamabad, March 16 (DPA) The Pakistani government Monday acceded to demands for the reinstatement of the country’s sacked top judge to avoid the escalation of political turmoil that threatened the stability of the nuclear-armed Islamic republic. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif then immediately called off the “Long March”.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the government’s decision to reinstate the former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in a televised address to the nation after a clamorous weekend of protests and international mediation.

Chaudhry, who was sacked in 2007 by former military strongman Pervez Musharraf, would take over as chief justice of the Supreme Court Saturday, immediately after the present top judge retires.

His reinstatement came as tens of thousands of people were driving toward Islamabad to hold a sit-in for an independent judiciary that they vowed to continue until Chaudhry was reinstated.

The rally, dubbed the “Long March”, was headed by two-time prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a conservative politician and longtime foe of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari, who replaced Musharraf, initially had promised to reinstate Chaudhry, but he reneged on the pledge, turning himself into an unpopular political figure.

The demonstration, which started Sunday from the eastern city of Lahore, triggered fears of civil unrest in Pakistan, a key battleground in the international fight against terrorism, raising concerns in Washington and other Western capitals, which have intervened to defuse Pakistan’s political tensions.

“I announce the restoration of Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and all sacked judges on their posts,” said Gilani, who sought reconciliation with the opposition parties.

“My dear countrymen, at this crucial juncture, we reiterate our pledge to promote politics of reconciliation,” Gilani said, adding that the government would seek a review of a court ruling that barred Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from elected office and dismissed their party’s provincial government in Punjab.

The verdict had put Sharif’s party and protesting lawyers in direct conflict with the government, deepening the political crisis in the country as it struggles to fight growing Islamist militancy and a sinking economy.

More than 1,500 anti-government activists and attorneys were detained last week by law-enforcement agencies to thwart agitations, and towns falling on the Long March’s route were sealed off to contain the protests.

Gilani Monday also ordered the release of all detained people and the removal of the ban on public gatherings.

“Come let us collectively celebrate this historic moment in a dignified manner,” Gilani asked the nation of nearly 170 million people.

After Gilani’s address, the opposition called off its planned sit-in, which was to have begun Monday, but the rally was still travelling to Islamabad to celebrate victory in the campaign for an independent judiciary.

A jubilant crowd gathered at Chaudhry’s official residence in the capital, distributing sweets and chanting slogans praising the independent-minded judge and the lawyers’ struggle.

The former chief justice and his colleagues had been sacked in November 2007 under emergency rule proclaimed by then-president Musharraf, immediately before they were to rule in a case involving Musharraf.

Chaudhry’s removal triggered a mass movement against Musharraf, resulting in the defeat of his political allies in last year’s elections and ending his nine-year military rule.

Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, held meetings with Gilani and Zardari late Sunday and reportedly pressed the two leaders for a deal to avert instability.

Nabeel Gabool, a member of Gilani’s cabinet, attributed the apparent detente to “America, army and Allah”.

The US welcomed Chaudhry’s restoration. “This is a statesmanlike decision taken to defuse a serious confrontation, and the apparent removal of this long-standing national issue is a substantial step towards national reconciliation,” said a statement released by the US embassy in Islamabad.

“Now is the time 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,” it added.

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