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Pakistan protesters clash with police

'The entire country has been turned into a police state,' says opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, defying a house-arrest order. Prime Minister Gilani plans a national address to help defuse the crisis.

March 16, 2009|Laura King

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Averting what could have been a bloody showdown at the gates of the capital, Pakistan's government today capitulated to protesters' demands to reinstate the popular chief justice, reshaping the political landscape in a country crucial to the West's battle with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Though it appeared to have staved off a confrontation, the decision announced in a nationally televised speech by Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani left the door open to more upheaval in coming weeks and months.

It weakens the hand of pro-Western President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and catapults the combative opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to a position of far greater strength.

Word of the agreement to reinstate the deposed Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, triggered wild rejoicing not only by opposition activists but also by many supporters of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party. The president was widely believed to have balked at the chief justice's return for fear that corruption cases against him would be revived.

"This is what we wanted all along. It is only Zardari who was the obstacle," said Kashif Kazmi, a Pakistan People's Party supporter who joined the impromptu celebrations. "I think he should resign."

In the predawn darkness, jubilant flag-waving crowds descended on Chaudhry's modest villa to sing, cheer and dance in the frontyard. Veteran barristers, many in their trademark black suits despite the early hour, embraced and congratulated one another.

"I haven't seen anything like this in my life," said 19-year-old student Raza Rezvi. Someone strummed an electric guitar; others wrapped themselves in party and national flags, and almost everyone looked somewhat sleepy and rumpled -- but thrilled. Chaudhry remained inside, greeting well-wishers.

Police made desultory attempts to direct traffic as a jam developed on the road leading to Chaudhry's home.

The government's abrupt reversal came as a huge caravan led by Sharif bore down on Islamabad in defiance of a ban on the massive rally they planned for today. Police resistance had melted away hours earlier as the convoy left the city of Lahore, the center of Sharif's power, with the crowd that accompanied him dismantling barricades along the 200-mile stretch of road. As the night wore on, thousands of followers flocked to the slow-moving convoy's route, throwing rose petals and dancing by the roadside.

Leaders of Sharif's party, together with senior sources in the government, confirmed after midnight that the deal had been struck. But the airing of a prerecorded speech by Gillani, initially expected before dawn, was delayed until just before 6 a.m., raising speculation about disagreement within the government over wording.

Gillani said Chaudhry and other fired judges would be restored to the bench as of Saturday. He said the decision had been made jointly by him and Zardari. The president himself stayed out of sight.

Siddiqul Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, said it was ready to work with the Pakistan People's Party to restore calm.

The lawyers had dubbed their campaign for Chaudhry's reinstatement "the long march," and it lived up to its name.

Their grass-roots movement was launched in the spring of 2007 when then-President Pervez Musharraf fired Chaudhry and dozens of other judges. It was crucial in forcing the former military leader to give up his role as army chief, then in driving him from office altogether last year.

Pakistan returned to full civilian rule a year ago after nearly nine years under Musharraf, who had ousted Sharif in a coup in 1999. But the victorious civilian opposition was splintered by infighting.

Zardari took over leadership of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party after she was assassinated in December 2007, and became president six months ago.

Most of the dozens of judges fired by Musharraf have been returned to the bench. Zardari promised months ago to bring back the rest, but balked.

Then last month, the Supreme Court, without Chaudhry, banned Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from running for elective office. Many of Bhutto's friends and backers had distanced themselves from the actions of the government, which arrested hundreds of opposition activists and placed tight restrictions on political rallies.

A backlash against the Supreme Court ruling disqualifying the Sharifs coincided with plans by the nationwide lawyers movement to stage protests demanding the reinstatement of Chaudhry. The effect of the merged movements proved irresistible.

Even by Pakistani standards, it was riveting political drama. But it remains to be seen whether the confrontation, despite its apparently peaceful denouement, would paralyze Zardari's government.

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