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Monday, March 16, 2009

> Pakistan reinstates sacked chief justice

Pakistan's government today said it would reinstate the country's deposed top judge and end a crackdown on the opposition as it caved in to mass protests and moved to end a damaging political crisis.

Main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif welcomed what he called an historic achievement and promptly called off a mass protest march, which had been due to descend on the capital today, averting widespread fears of unrest.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's announcement, in a dawn address to the nation, followed overnight talks with President Asif Ali Zardari and the army chief determined to avert chaos in the central front in the "war on terror".

"I announce today that Iftikhar Chaudhry and all other deposed judges will be reinstated from March 21," when the current chief justice retires, he said.

Zardari has come under massive Western pressure to defuse a standoff with Sharif, who urged the masses to rise up against the government to demand that judges sacked under emergency rule be reinstated.

"It is a historic day, a great day which will change the country's destiny," said Sharif from inside his car in the central city of Gujranwala, were he was showered with rose petals and mobbed by a sea of jubilant supporters.

"We are now calling off this long march," he said, following discussions with lawyers and political allies including cricket hero Imran Khan.

Gilani also overturned a repressive government clampdown designed to foil the protest march, ordering authorities to release all those arrested and declaring the immediate lifting of a ban on public demonstrations.

"I want to congratulate the nation. Let us celebrate this with dignity," he said in an apparent plea for peaceful celebrations, one day after protests saw the worst street violence since the crisis unfolded nearly three weeks ago.

A note of caution

The United States welcomed Gilani's announcement as a move to "defuse a serious confrontation" and a "substantial step towards national reconciliation," in a statement issued by its embassy in Islamabad.

Jubilant lawyers, activists and political opponents danced in the streets, waving party flags and punching the air in delight in the wake of the speech.

But a spokesman for Chaudhry sounded a note of caution.

"There have been so many broken promises in the past. A lot of mistrust has been created. We have to see the official notification," Athar Minullah told reporters, insisting repeatedly that he was expressing his own opinion only.

"The government will have to prove that this reinstatement is not a deception," he added.

The former chief justice was dismissed by ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf on Nov 3, 2007 along with 60 other judges, 53 of whom have since been reinstated.

The former military ruler had feared the judges would declare him ineligible to contest a presidential election while in military uniform. He had initially fired Chaudhry in March 2007 but he was reinstated on a supreme court appeal.

His dismissal led to a countrywide protest that ultimately forced Musharraf to quit in August 2008, and his full reinstatement was a significant concession from a government that has reneged on previous pledges to do so.

The stand-off between the government and opposition lawyers and activists, who have campaigned for Chaudhry's restoration, has threatened to destabilise further the nuclear-armed frontline state fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Sharif ready to talk

Sharif defied house arrest to lead thousands on Sunday in a banned protest through Lahore, where protesters dismantled barricades and fought pitched street battles with riot police armed with tear gas.

In his package of concessions, Gilani said the government had decided to file a petition against the Feb 25 Supreme Court ruling that banned Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from contesting elections.

"I appeal to them to come and join us to discuss how we can move the country forward," he said.

Sharif welcomed his offer

"We are ready to hold talks with the government on the implementation of the charter of democracy," he said referring to a document that he signed with Zardari's assassinated wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto in 2006.

Analysts had warned that continued violence could force an intervention by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 62 years - AFP.