- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - Pakistan’s chief justice was back at work Sunday following two years of protests over his ouster, while the U.S.-allied country’s premier reached out to the opposition to further calm political turmoil.

Hundreds of lawyers and activists who have agitated for Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry’s return gathered outside the judge’s home for a ceremonial flag-raising. They carried balloons and threw rose petals, calling the judge’s reinstatement a milestone for democracy and a victory for the populace.

The U.S. has expressed hope that Chaudhry’s return will allow Pakistan to focus on battling the rising al-Qaida and Taliban violence along its border with Afghanistan.

The top judge tackled routine duties Sunday such as approving panels of jurists and dates for hearings in criminal and civil cases, a court statement said. He was formally back in office after midnight following the Saturday retirement of the chief justice who had replaced him.

Former President Pervez Musharraf deposed Chaudhry in 2007 after the independent-minded judge began examining cases that could have embarrassed the military ruler and threatened his claim to office. The justice’s firing sparked a wave of lawyer-led protests that helped force Musharraf to allow elections that brought his foes to power.

Musharraf resigned last summer. His successor, Asif Ali Zardari, promised to restore the chief justice but kept stalling, apparently over fears that Chaudhry would examine a deal that granted him immunity from prosecution over corruption claims.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the second-biggest party, joined the opposition because of Zardari’s failure to return Chaudhry to his post.

Sharif was further angered after a court ruling last month barred him and his brother Shahbaz from holding elected office. Zardari then dismissed the Punjab provincial government headed by Shahbaz Sharif.

Zardari gave in last week and reinstated the chief justice after activist lawyers and opposition supporters began a march toward the capital, where they planned to stage an indefinite sit-in at Parliament.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani went to Sharif’s residence in the Lahore area to meet the opposition leader. The meeting was likely to include talks on the future of the Punjab provincial government.

As part of an attempt to reconcile with the opposition, the government already has appealed to the Supreme Court to review the judgment against the Sharif brothers. The various political parties are jockeying for position in case new alliances need to be struck to run the province.

“We are bringing an olive branch from the federal government. We want to go through the reconciliation. I have come with a goodwill message,” Gilani said ahead of the meeting.

Chaudhry will be under a microscope in the coming months, especially when it comes to cases involving leading political figures. Many expect he will recuse himself from such matters to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Lawyers said they had asked that no political party flags be brought to his House Sunday to avoid making the justice appear politicized, though many of the activists shouted slogans for Sharif and against Musharraf.

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