Pakistan's top judge back after two years

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Pakistani police officers escort the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, center, as he arrives at the Supreme Court compound in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday, March 24, 2009. The Pakistani chief justice whose ouster sparked tremendous political turmoil made a celebrated return to his office Tuesday following calls for reconciliation and a strong judiciary by the country's president, who had long blocked the judge's reinstatement.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's supreme court chief justice called for an end to judicial corruption after returning to bench Tuesday for the first time in two years -- brought back to resolve a political crisis as Pakistan's fight against terrorism intensifies.

Judge Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry also faced demands to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of people thought to have been detained by security forces since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Chaudhry, hailed by supporters as a fearless and independent justice, was dismissed two years ago by then-president Pervez Musharraf, leading to protests by lawyers that helped oust the U.S.-backed military ruler in 2008.

Musharraf's successor, Asif Ali Zardari, had resisted demands to reinstate Chaudhry, apparently out of fears he may examine a deal that has provided Zardari protection from prosecution on corruption claims.

Zardari relented this month, but only after thousands of demonstrators led by Nawaz Sharif, the head of the largest opposition party, were preparing to surround the parliament.

All sides in the dispute have called for reconciliation in recent days. Chaudhry has not said what his priorities as chief justice will be.

At the start of his first hearing Tuesday, Chaudhry thanked Pakistanis for supporting him but warned the population often viewed the courts as corrupt.

"Lawyers should help us end corruption," he said. "You should point out those cases in which you see elements of corruption. It is a must for justice to end corruption first."

The judge is likely to face strong scrutiny, especially in politically sensitive cases like the fate of several hundred people believed detained during Musharraf's rule.

The issue could prove embarrassing to the United States because some of the missing may have been turned over to American authorities. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad declined to comment.

The wife of one alleged victim, Zahida Sharif, said she had new hope that Chaudhry would investigate the case of her husband, a doctor who vanished in 2005 in the northwest city of Peshawar. She insisted he had no political or militant connections.

"I just want him to be fair," Zahida Sharif said of Chaudhry.

Musharraf and officials in his government acknowledged some people had been detained, saying it was necessary to combat terrorism. Others, they said, had probably joined militant groups or were fighting -- or had been killed -- in Afghanistan.

However, rights workers said many of the missing were nonviolent political activists. An Amnesty International report last year said more than 500 people were thought to be detained. The report noted that Supreme Court pressure had led to some releases.

Asma Jahangir, the head of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said it had been pushing for hearings on the missing even before Chaudhry's return.

"Hopefully now we will be heard, whereas in the past we were not being heard," she said.


Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.

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