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U.S. reportedly floated plan to send Pakistan's chief judge abroad

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — With U.S. encouragement, Pakistan's new civilian government is set to cut the powers of the country's chief justice even as it prepares to reinstate the man who challenged President Pervez Musharraf and then was fired by him, according to two knowledgeable officials in the dominant Pakistan People's Party.

The plan now under consideration would slash the authority of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a move that may allow President Pervez Musharraf to survive the reinstatement of the jurist he has described as the "scum of the earth".

Lawyers who have campaigned vigorously for Chaudhry's restoration say intense U.S. pressure is driving the government initiative. The lawyers, who have had many contacts with U.S. officials, say the U.S. drive is based on a fear that a restored chief justice would attempt to unseat the president, a close ally of President George Bush. Deposed from office, Musharraf could face treason charges for suspending the country's constitution for a six-week period in November.

Lawyers said U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, even floated a plan to send Chaudhry abroad. Tariq Mehmood, a retired judge and leader of the lawyers, told McClatchy Newspapers that Patterson raised the possibility at a meeting with him and other legal campaigners in early March. She is said to have asked what they thought of the possibility that Chaudhry could be appointed a judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague instead of returning to his old job.

"I told her, that if somebody thinks Justice Chaudhry is suitable for that post (at the I.C.J.), why he is not suitable as chief justice of Pakistan?" said Mehmood. "The Americans have mixed up the issue with the war on terror. They say that General Musharraf is the only solution."

The meeting took place at Mehmood's home and was reported in the Pakistan media but without details. The U.S. Embassy would neither confirm nor deny Mehmood's account.

"We have many diplomatic discussions with political leaders, but we do not discuss the details of diplomatic discussions," said Elizabeth Colton, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman. A U.S. official, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject, said no one recalled the conversation, but it "may be so."

The fate of the judiciary has become the most explosive political issue in Pakistan over the last year, after Chaudhry's judicial activism sent him into a head-on clash with Musharraf. It culminated in November with the president dismissing the chief justice and 60 other superior court judges. Earlier this month, at least 10 people were killed in Karachi in an attack on lawyers, allegedly by activists from a pro-Musharraf political party, in which six lawyers were burned alive.

The judicial reform package, now being drafted by the Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition government, would strip the office of the chief justice of its main power, namely the selection of judges to hear cases, according to two PPP officials, who declined to be identified because they are not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

It is also likely to involve limiting the term of the chief justice in a way that would entail Chaudhry's retirement soon after he resumes office. There are even suggestions that the appointment of the chief justice be reappraised and a new system introduced that would mean that Chaudhry is no longer the senior-most judge.

"Instead of King Musharraf, we don't want to have King Chaudhry," said a senior PPP official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There's more to the judiciary than one man."

While the PPP, which leads the coalition, is ostensibly opposed to Musharraf, it is also concerned that Chaudhry's record of challenging the executive branch could spell trouble for it. But the People's Party and especially its main partner, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, committed themselves to bring the judges back in their election campaigns. The judicial reforms would take the sting out of fulfilling that pledge but could see the pro-judiciary movement, which commands considerable street power, turned on the newly elected government.

The frenetic pace of US diplomacy in the country, before and after the February 18 election, which delivered a strong anti-Musharrraf verdict, has surprised Pakistanis. Patterson has had multiple meetings with party leaders, while John Negroponte, the Deputy Secretary of State, flew in last month to hold his own talks with the key players.

Athar Minallah, a lawyer who is close to Chaudhry, said that he had been told by contacts in the People's Party and other parties that "tremendous" force from the US was being applied.

"Because of Pervez Musharraf and his obsession with Iftikhar Chaudhry, the US administration is actually pressuring the political leaders," Minallah said.

Washington called for return of democracy after Musharraf suspended the constitution in November, but it never once called for the restoration of the judges removed at the same time.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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