ISLAMABAD In a dramatic wee-hour development, the government agreed to reinstate the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry who, along with nearly 50 judges, had been unceremoniously sacked by the then president and army chief General Pervez Musharraf almost two years ago.

The move came as tens of thousands of opposition supporters joined the lawyers' long march in Lahore and started to move towards Islamabad for staging a sit-in outside the parliament.

As the electrifying events in Lahore started sending dangerous signals of a near revolt, top military and civilian leaders went into a long session of discussion to defuse the situation.

Even when the formal annoucnement was delayed by a few hours, as details and finer points were being discussed, leader of the opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told media that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had informed them that the government was restoring the deposed chieef justice.

Highly placed sources said that Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani had frankly told both President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani that they needed to reverse some of the controversial decisions before the situation spiralled out of control. These sources said it was after his not-so-veiled warning that the two top civilian leaders agreed to roll back some of the controversial decisions of the previous and present governments, including the sacking of the chief justice of Pakistan.

The sources said that soon after meeting the army chief, the president and prime minister went into a session of their own to discuss the modalities for making the announcement. By this time reports had already started coming in that the procession heading towards Islamabad was constantly pulling more and more people.

It was then decided that Premier Gilani should give a televised speech past 2 o'clock in the morning, and make the major announcement. As the state-run PTV made the announcement of prime minister's speech, celebrations started in the camp of lawyers and opposition parties. Scores of people thronged the residence of the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, raising slogans in support of the judiciary and declaring it a historic victory. The deposed CJ's spokesperson Ather Minallah called it a good omen and said that though belated the right move had been made to save the country from further chaos and anarchy.

Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was first suspended by the then president General Musharaf in early 2007 for his alleged role in destabilising the government by blocking some of the major decisions, particularly the privatisation of Pakistan Steel. Many people believed that his dismissal was linked to his keen interest in pressurising the government and intelligence agencies to find scores of people who had gone missing, and many of whom were believed to be in the custody of the security agencies.

A Supreme Court bench later restored the chief justice by rejecting president Musharraf's attempt to remove him through the Supreme Judicial Council. The new situation became even more embarrassing for the military ruler who, instead of accepting the popular decision, imposed emergency rule in early November, sacked Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and dozens of other superior court judges, and ordered severe media restrictions. Although some of the decisions, including restrictions against media, were lifted, but the judges were not restored.

The situation took another dramatic turn when after the general elections, a powerful coalition government was formed with the majority PPP being supported by its one-time arch rival, the PML-N of Nawaz Sharif. However, the alliance fell apart after a few months as President Zardari refused to honour the promises and pledges made with the PML-N about the restoration of the deposed judges.

After months of agitation and protest marches, the lawyers' leadership announced to take out a long march, which drew its real strength from the main opposition parties, mainly the PML-N. At the initial stage the police tried to block the march by arresting a large number of lawyers and their supporters. But with Nawaz Sharif's participation in Lahore, the situation turned in favour of the protesters, as tens of thousands of people took to the street, compelling the authorities to withdraw the police to avoid any confrontation. By late evening the government started to receive messages that things might get out of control if some of the controversial steps were not reversed, including the sacking of the deposed judges.

The sources said the move might even ensure reversing of several other decisions and might see the restoration of PML-N's government in Punjab and possible removal of Governor Salman Taseer.

Observers say the dramatic developments may go a long way in strengthening democracy, even if these have been arrived under pressure from the security establishment and outside forces, particularly the United States.

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