Court overrides Musharaf's suspension of justice

and Laura King

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan &

In a serious new blow to beleaguered president Gen. Pervez Musharaf, the Supreme Court voted unanimously Friday to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the outspoken jurist whose suspension four months ago galvanized a broad-based pro-democracy movement.

The dramatic development comes amid the greatest turmoil in Pakistan since Musharaf seized power in a coup eight years ago. Nearly 200 people have been killed during July in suicide bombings and confrontations between Pakistani security forces and Islamic militants, which were ignited by the storming of a radical mosque in this capital city.

The escalating political and military strife raises new questions as to whether Musharaf, who is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the war against resurgent elements of al-Qaida and the Taliban, can retain his grip on power.

Chaudhry's reinstatement paves the way for fresh judicial challenges to the Pakistani leader's plans to remain chief of the country's military while securing a new five-year presidential term at the hands of a pliant national assembly before new elections that are to be held by the end of the year.

The court ruling was an unambiguous rebuke to Musharaf, who had sought in March to remove Chaudhry on misconduct charges. The justices declared the suspension illegal and, in a separate 10-3 vote, threw out the allegations of wrongdoing.

Rejoicing erupted outside the courthouse, with usually somber black-suited lawyers literally dancing in glee and opposition party workers cheering the verdict. In cities across Pakistan, political activists and lawyers distributed sweets, the traditional token of celebration.

Chaudhry's chief counsel, Aitzaz Ahsan, called the court decision a "victory for the entire nation." Human-rights activists also hailed the verdict.

"It's a great day for the rule of law in Pakistan," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Musharaf gave no indication he would seek to challenge the ruling, either by legal or military means. His spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, said the Pakistani leader "respects the decision of the Supreme Court."

"The president ... stated earlier that any judgment the Supreme Court arrives at will be honored, respected and adhered to," Qureshi said in a statement.

The Bush administration, which has backed Musharaf throughout the crisis, pointed to the verdict as proof of judicial independence.

State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the ruling "speaks positively ... that these kinds of issues can be resolved through the established institutions, through the rule of law."

Though the ruling is a blow to Musharaf's standing, some analysts believe that the current confrontation with Islamic militants might help him regain his footing, at least temporarily.

The ongoing offensive against insurgents "buys him some time," said Robert M. Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"He doesn't have to make any political decisions immediately, but at some point, attention will revert from the security arena back to the political one," Hathaway said. "I think he is one very unhappy general tonight."

Though the clash with Chaudhry made Musharaf a deeply unpopular figure with Pakistani moderates, most of them supported the Pakistani leader's decision in July to send in commandos to storm the Red Mosque, whose militant clerics had sent students on vigilante-style anti-vice raids. More than 100 people were killed in the mosque raid.

Following threats of retribution from militants, Musharaf ordered the deployment of thousands of troops along the Afghan border, where insurgents have taken sanctuary. At the same time, the government is seeking through intermediaries to revive a cease-fire that was abandoned by militants last weekend.

In the North Waziristan tribal region Friday, four more people were killed in a suicide car bombing and police defused a car bomb outside a crowded shopping center in Karachi, a port and the country's largest city.

"We must all unite against the current wave of extremism and militancy," Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said.

Even before the court's verdict, political rivals such as exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had been pressing Musharaf to step aside as military leader and allow free elections &

calls they are now expected to strongly renew.

Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party joined with lawyers across the country in organizing anti-government protests, declared in a statement that the case had become the rallying cry in "a struggle against dictatorship."

Nationwide protests against Chaudhry's suspension, during which the sometimes prickly jurist achieved rock-star status, were largely peaceful. But his supporters were twice the target of serious attacks.

In May, gunmen from a pro-Musharaf party fired on opposition party workers rallying in his defense in Karachi, killing more than 40 people. On Tuesday, a suicide attacker struck a pro-Chaudhry rally in Islamabad, killing 18 people.

In the past, the Supreme Court and other Pakistani courts often have acquiesced to the wishes of the country's military rulers. Senior lawyers vowed that no longer would be the case.

"The ruling will set a precedent ... that no one can curb the independence of the judiciary in the country again," said Munir Malik, the president of the Supreme Court bar association and one of Chaudhry's attorneys.

Some observers, however, said it remained to be seen whether the judiciary again would yield to political pressure on sensitive issues such as the fate of prisoners held without trial after being rounded up by police and intelligence agents for suspected terrorist links.

"The judiciary itself will be held to a much higher standard," said Hasan, the human-rights activist. "We will see if they live up to it."

Special correspondent Zaidi contributed from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Istanbul. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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