ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP)-- Pakistan's new prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Monday ordered the release of judges arrested last November under orders from President Pervez Musharraf, within minutes of winning a sweeping majority in a vote by members of the parliament to elect the new prime minister.
"I order the immediate release of detained judges of the superior judiciary," said Gilani in his maiden speech to members of the lower house of parliament known as the national assembly, after becoming the prime minister.
Gilani's order immediately raised the prospect of a significant setback to Mr. Musharraf which may eventually force him out of power. The detained judges include Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, former chief justice of the supreme court of Pakistan, who was placed under house arrest within hours of the imposition of a nationwide emergency rule by Musharraf in November.
Chaudhry was widely seen as an independent minded judge who posed a potential political threat to the pro-U.S. Musharraf. At the time of his dismissal, Chaudhry was hearing a legal challenge which questioned Musharraf's decision to become president in last October's presidential elections, while also serving as the chief of army staff. Under Pakistan's constitution, retired government officials including the army chief must wait at least two years after retirement before contesting for political office.
"If this release of judges is the first step towards their eventual rehabilitation, it is possible that Chaudhry will return to hear the case (against Musharraf)," said one leader of Gilani's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) speaking to CBS News on condition of anonymity. "It's hard to tell if the judges will be restored soon," he said.
A senior government official who knows Musharraf said the release of the judges did not necessarily mean that they will be heading towards their rehabilitation. Shortly after dismissing judges including Chaudhry last November, Musharraf then moved to appoint their successors including a new chief justice of the supreme court in a move seen by some legal experts for effectively blocking the return of the former judges. "The complete rehabilitation of the judges is still a distant prospect," said the government official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.
However, western diplomats warned that Chaudhry could return to a hero's welcome, similarly to how he was received when Musharraf dismissed him in March 2007 on vague charges of corruption. Before returning back to his job as chief justice of Pakistan's supreme court through a landmark verdict by his peers, Chaudhry traveled across Pakistan and was received by large crowds of supporters among lawyers and civil society activists.
On Tuesday, a senior western diplomat who has monitored Pakistani politics for the past three years, warned that Musharraf faces his most difficult test with the arrival of a government made of political parties which oppose him. "The outlook for president Musharraf's presidency today is far from perfect. This new government will loose out no opportunity to raise pressure on the president," the diplomat told CBS News.
Western diplomats have said in recent days, they will be closely watching to see if the new government makes any fundamental changes to Pakistan's support to the U.S.-led war on terror. In his rule over Pakistan for more than eight years, Musharraf has built close ties with the U.S. and earned the reputation of being one of Washington's faithful allies in the war on terror.
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