ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Minutes after he was confirmed in office Monday, Pakistan's new prime minister ordered the immediate release of the chief justice, whom President Pervez Musharraf had deposed and held under house arrest since November.
Police quickly lifted the barricades and barbed wired around the official house of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry - and other judges - after the surprise announcement by Yousuf Raza Gilani.
A beaming Chaudhry, flanked by his family members, who were detained with him, including an 8-year-old son, appeared on the house's balcony. He hadn't been seen in public since Nov. 3, when Musharraf fired him and had security forces drag him out of Pakistan's high court.
"I have no words to thank you for the way you struggled for nearly five months for the enforcement of the rule of law and our constitution," he shouted to an ecstatic crowd.
Chaudhry and other justices were hearing a case that challenged Musharraf's right to continue as president and seemed ready to decide against the president when he ousted them and put the country under six weeks of emergency rule.
The judges, once restored - the new government has pledged to reinstate Chaudhry and 60 other judges removed by Musharraf within a month - could reopen the case. Or they could agree to hear charges of treason against Musharraf over his imposition of emergency rule, a crime that carries the death penalty.
It remains to be seen whether the Pakistani army will permit its former chief of staff to be put on trial by a civilian government. The Bush administration, which has supported Musharraf, didn't called for Chaudhry's restoration.
About 200 lawyers and civil activists invaded the grounds of the chief justice's house Monday as a large police contingent stood watching, seemingly unsure how to react. A drummer appeared, and spontaneous dancing broke out in what became a carnival atmosphere. Previously, police blockades had prevented access to the road, some 200 yards long, that led to the house and those of other judges. All were freed.
Although he hasn't been formally reinstated, Chaudhry's release is a direct challenge to the president. It was the confrontation between Musharraf and the judiciary that threw Pakistan into a constitutional crisis last March. Pakistani politicians think that Musharraf, who's no longer the head of the army, can't survive the restoration of Chaudhry, whom he's described as the "scum of the earth."
"We're seeing the crumbling of another American tin-pot strongman," said Ayaz Amir, a member of parliament for the Pakistan Muslim League-N - part of the incoming coalition government - who'd rushed to Chaudhry's home. "Now the people will question other things, like our role in the 'war on terror.' "
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Khwaja Mohammad Asif, who's expected to be a minister in the coalition, said that the reinstatement of the judiciary had assumed an unstoppable momentum, even if some factions in the new government still had doubts.
"If he (Musharraf) has some self-respect, he should go," Asif said. "If he resists the restoration, then parliament will have no choice but to impeach him."
Gilani, of the Pakistan People's Party, which will lead the coalition, received a vote of confidence from parliament Monday. On Tuesday, he's due to be formally sworn into office by Musharraf.
Top U.S. officials are also due in Islamabad on Tuesday. According to Pakistan news reports, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher will meet Gilani and Musharraf, who's been a close U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Negroponte in November described Musharraf as "indispensable," but Washington subsequently has sought to distance itself somewhat from the Pakistani president. The Bush administration has been silent about Chaudhry's ouster.
The parliamentary vote for Gilani turned into a powerful and rowdy anti-Musharraf showing. Parliament resounded to chants from the public gallery against the president, which at times were joined by the members of the house, who thumped their desks in approval. Gilani, who leads a coalition that's hostile to Musharraf, received 264 votes, while a candidate put up by a party of Musharraf loyalists got 42. It demonstrated that the incoming government has the numbers to impeach the president, Asif said.
Gilani dropped his bombshell about the judges during his acceptance speech, causing parliament to erupt in cheers.
"Today, because of the sacrifices of Benazir Bhutto, democracy is flourishing," Gilani told the lawmakers.
Bhutto, twice prime minister and again the Pakistan People's Party candidate for the top job, was assassinated in December. Her son, 19-year-old Bilawal, who was made a joint chairman of the party after her death, watched the parliamentary proceedings from a VIP gallery. Several times, he wiped tears from his eyes, as party supporters in the public seating chanted, "Benazir is alive."
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.
© McClatchy Newspapers 2008