Pakistan's Zardari Backs Down, Agrees to Restore Judges After Protests

The agreement to reinstate the ousted Supreme Court chief justice could defuse a paralyzing crisis.

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In a major concession this morning and after proving unable to stop mass demonstrations this weekend, Pakistan's government agreed to restore the Supreme Court's former chief justice to his position. The decision—which capped off weeks of dangerously rising political instability—came just as opposition leader Nawaz Sharif led thousands of protesters to Islamabad for an organized sit-in.

Iftikhar Chaudhry was one of about 60 judges that former President Pervez Musharraf threw out of office in 2007. Most of them have since been reinstated. And before entering office in the spring of 2008, President Asif Zardari promised that he would reinstate Chaudhry within a month of his swearing-in. Instead, he reneged on that pledge, apparently fearing that a deal that gave him immunity from prosecution over alleged corruption would be nullified by Chaudhry.

Sharif's party, along with a number of lawyers, consistently called for Chaudhry's reinstatement. But as political disagreements between Sharif and Zardari reached a head this month, protests and demonstrations grew. On Sunday, the government proved unable to quell street protests that spilled out of Lahore.

The rising instability has been a key concern for the United States, which fears that it could be a major obstacle to Pakistan's ability to focus on growing militant insurgencies. Several U.S. officials spoke with the Pakistani government over the past week, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging compromise.

And then, at dawn today, Pakistan's prime minister announced that Chaudhry would be reinstated March 21. Several other judges also will be restored. Activists arrested over the past week, furthermore, will be released.

The move shows that the Pakistani leadership's power is weakening, as Zardari had long refused to make such a concession. But many hope that it's a sign that tensions have been allayed, at least for now. The United States, meanwhile, has applauded the decision as a "statesmanlike act."

Read about how Pakistan was paralyzed by the political crisis.