- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Friday reinstated three judges ousted by then-President Pervez Musharraf, cementing political divisions in the country a day before it elects a new president.

Mr. Musharraf’s purge of the court last year deepened his unpopularity and helped his political foes to a victory in February elections. Mr. Musharraf resigned under pressure last month.

However, the second-largest party then quit the ruling coalition over the failure to restore all the judges — including the ousted chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

Justices Tassadiq Hussain Jillani, Shakirullah Jan and Syed Jamshed Ali were sworn back onto the court at a ceremony Friday.

Law Minister Farooq Naek said Mr. Chaudhry was also welcome to take a fresh oath but said he could not return as chief justice because removing the judge who replaced him could trigger a “constitutional impasse.”

“There cannot be two chief justices,” Mr. Naek told reporters at the court.

The move deepens the rift between the ruling Pakistan People’s Party of Asif Ali Zardari, the front-runner to become president in a vote by lawmakers Saturday, and that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mr. Zardari has countered calls to restore the judges by arguing that it would require constitutional amendments to untangle a legal mess bequeathed by Mr. Musharraf.

But Mr. Zardari also appears wary of Mr. Chaudhry, who stood up to Mr. Musharraf and questioned a pact signed by the former military ruler that quashed long-standing corruption charges against Mr. Zardari and his slain wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Mr. Sharif has argued that because the judges were illegally removed, the government could restore them all through a simple order. Pervaiz Rashid, a Sharif aide, said the return of the three judges Friday amounted to validating Mr. Musharraf’s crackdown.

“Whether they restore three or 300 judges, the way they are doing it, it doesn’t change our stand,” he said. “We do not believe in any judiciary without the reinstatement of Justice Chaudhry.”

Mr. Musharraf imposed emergency rule last November in order to purge the court and halt legal challenges to his plan to stay on for another five years as president. The retooled court issued orders granting him immunity from prosecution for a crackdown that Mr. Musharraf himself admitted was unconstitutional.

The government already has changed a law lifting the maximum number of judges on the Supreme Court from 16 to 29 - meaning none of the judges who issued those protections will have to make way for any who return.

Mr. Zardari, generally considered pro-Western, isn’t expected to change Pakistan’s commitment as an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, despite a bold cross-border U.S.-led raid that left at least 15 people dead in the country’s largely lawless tribal belt along the Afghan frontier.

On Friday, an explosion possibly caused by a missile strike killed five suspected foreign militants near the Afghan border, two Pakistani intelligence officials said, citing local informers.

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