|Order temporary, say Government counsel, but lawyers plan celebration|
ISLAMABAD: In a new twist to the judicial crisis in Pakistan, the Supreme Court on Monday stayed the proceedings of the five-judge Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), hearing the reference against ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary.
The apex court granted Mr. Justice Chaudhary the stay order on the first day of the hearing of a petition by him raising several constitutional issues on the reference against him, including questions about the SJC.
But the five-judge Bench also conceded a Government demand that the Chief Justice's petition be heard by the full court. The Government's plea was that the judges on the Bench, a reconstituted and enlarged version of the original three-judge Bench, comprised four junior judges and an ad hoc one.
According to legal experts, the full court will not include five judges in the SJC, including acting Chief Justice Rana Bhagwandas. It is likely to comprise 12 of the 17 judges of the Supreme Court, with the seniormost heading it.
Mr. Justice Chaudhary's lawyers pronounced the stay on the SJC proceedings, which came a day after a huge pro-Chief Justice rally in Lahore, as a victory. The Supreme Court Bar Association said lawyers would mark May 9, when the panel is to hold its next hearing, as a day of "celebration."
Mr. Justice Chaudhary had several times asked the SJC to stay its proceedings until the Supreme Court decided on his petition, but the five-judge panel refused to grant the stay.
Lawyers for the Government said they were "not unhappy" with the verdict. While their demand for a full Bench was granted, the stay order was temporary and subject to confirmation by the full court, they said.
Analysts said the stay was a reprieve for the Government, which was finding itself in an increasingly tight corner over the March 9 reference that sparked President Pervez Musharraf's biggest political crisis. It takes the heat off the Government, as the reference will cease to be the rallying point for an Opposition agitation, which had grown to unimaginable proportions as the weekend rally in Lahore showed.
But a spokesperson for the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (N), which demonstrated awesome support to the Lahore rally, after seven years in the wilderness, said the agitation would continue as "larger" issues were involved. "This cannot stop now. The movement will continue until the Chief Justice is restored to his position. And this struggle is much bigger than the judiciary. Don't forget that this is an election year, and we are also fighting for free and fair elections. We will continue to rally to ensure that free and fair elections are held," said PML (N) information secretary Ehsan Iqbal.
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