Expectations High for Pakistan's Former Chief Justice

17 March 2009

Pakistan's deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, center, is greeted by lawyers after the government announced to reinstate him at his residence in Islamabad, Pakistan, 16 Mar 2009
Pakistan's deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, center, is greeted by lawyers after the government announced to reinstate him at his residence in Islamabad, Pakistan, 16 Mar 2009
Pakistan's government has issued the legal notice that paves the way for the re-instatement Sunday of former supreme court chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The action follows dramatic protests in recent days that forced the government to re-instate him and 10 other deposed judges. Chaudhry's dramatic return has led to high expectations.

In a country that has been dominated by powerful politicians and military leaders for most of its history, Iftikhar Muahmmad Chaudhry is a rare national figure with no army links or apparent political aspirations.

Instead, he gained his huge following through judicial activism. He worked to reform the country's notoriously slow courts - where civil disputes regularly drag on for years or even decades. He also took up the cases of so-called missing people, many of whom are widely believed to have been secretly imprisoned because of suspected links to terrorist groups.

But the 60-year-old judge is most well-known for his legal tussles with former president Pervez Musharraf. Chaudhry's court was considering challenges to Musharraf's presidential re-election in late 2007 when the president dismissed about 60 senior judges and declared a state of emergency.

"The people were very much disappointed with the actions by General Musharraf, which had shaken the very foundations of the judicial system. The superior court judges who had full protection under the constitution with regards to their tenure, they were removed," said Saeed Uzzaman Siddiqui, a former supreme court chief justice.

Chaudhry's supporters championed his opposition to Musharraf's deeply unpopular declaration of emergency as a primary reason for his re-instatement.

But former justice Uzzaman says the public's jubilant reaction to his return is mainly due to its frustration with dysfunctional lower courts. "There will be a lot of pressure on him by the public to get the present system of the court improved, because the cases are taking long time," he said.

Chaudhry's return comes at an awkward time for Pakistan's judicial system.

New Islamic courts in the Swat valley began hearing cases for the first time on Tuesday.

The courts are part of a peace deal to end months of fighting between the army and Taliban militants, but the power and jurisdiction of the courts remains ambiguous. Critics say they will promote harsh punishments, give Taliban militants legitimacy and erode human rights. Supporters say they will deliver the kind of speedy justice that locals have long desired.

A spokesman for Sufi Mohammed, a former militant who helped organize the peace deal, tells VOA the courts received many petitions in their session and delivered one verdict.

He says judges decided a case over a dispute involving about $500 that has been tied up in regular civilian courts for more than two years. They ordered one man to pay the other back in installments.

Human-rights activists and critics of the Islamic courts have lobbied for a strengthening of the judicial system to prevent courts like the ones in Swat from spreading. They say Chaudhry's efforts to improve lower courts will be a key indicator of his long-term success.

But in the short-term, Chaudhry faces several key decisions that could have a great impact on the country's already tumultuous politics.

Primarily, he must decide what to do with dozens of judges appointed by President Zardari in recent months, whether to overturn a deal granting immunity from prosecution to Mr. Zardari, and if he will bring charges against former president Musharraf for his suspension of the constitution in 2007.

Chaudhry has remained silent on his plans since the government decision to reinstate him Monday. Despite round-the-clock media coverage outside his home, he has only briefly appeared to wave at supporters from his balcony