Pakistan moots concessions to head off crisis

Hugely unpopular Zardari came under pressure at home and abroad to find a way out of his standoff with Sharif following multiple broken promises to reinstate judges sacked by ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

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Following intervention from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a flurry of meetings, the presidency said the government would appeal a court ruling that barred Sharif from office and look at the matter of the judges.

“The issue of judiciary and restoration of judges would be resolved in accordance with the principles laid down in the charter of democracy,” his office said in a statement.

That document, signed by Sharif and Zardari\’s widow, the former premier Benazir Bhutto assassinated in 2006 – before the judges were fired – pledged to restore democracy, avoid confrontation and take the military out of politics.

When pressed for details about when an appeal would be made or how the judiciary issue could be resolved, a spokesman for Zardari declined to answer.

Lawyers, gearing up for a mass protest march on the capital Islamabad rejected the announcement. Political opponents called for action not words and analysts poured cold water on the prospects for securing a meaningful deal.

The government has imposed the worst crackdown of its time in power on activists planning to march on Islamabad to demand the judges\’ reinstatement. Protests have been banned and more than 1,000 activists detained.

The turmoil could not come at a worse time for the nuclear-armed Muslim nation, which is a central front in US President Barack Obama\’s fight against Islamist militancy and facing a wave of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked violence.

A spokesman for Sharif said he would wait to see how the announcement on the judges would play out, but welcomed the appeal to the Supreme Court on the disqualification from office of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz.

“We will see how these things happen, how judges will be restored… It is not yet clear,” the spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, told AFP.

One of the main lawyer leaders, Munir Malik, rejected the concessions.

“When they cannot stand by their written pledges, how can we accept this? Until the judiciary is restored, our struggle will continue and long march will not be called off,” Malik told AFP.

Information Minister resigns

Zardari was dealt a further blow Saturday with the resignation of Information Minister Sherry Rehman, considered one of his confidantes.

Pakistan\’s daily The News reported that Rehman resigned “in protest” after she failed to convince Zardari to lift a ban on private Geo television.

The flagship private television channel said its cable transmission had been blocked on Zardari\’s orders because of its coverage of the protests, but the government flatly denied any responsibility.

Meanwhile, more than 1,500 lawyers and workers from Nawaz Sharif\’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) defied a ban on protests in Multan, a city in the politically vital Punjab heartland, shouting “death to Zardari” but were prevented from leaving the city by barricades.

Police also stopped one of Pakistan\’s most respected lawyers, Ali Ahmed Kurd, the president of the Supreme Court bar association, from boarding a flight to the Punjab capital Lahore, where he intended to join the protests.

Analysts unconvinced

Political analysts were unconvinced Saturday a deal could be reached.

“These are vague statements and will not help defuse the situation,” political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP, commenting on the presidency\’s announcement.

“There are no details about how they are going to restore judges. Will they restore it to the level that it was before the November 3 emergency rule or will they make fresh appointments?” he asked.

Musharraf removed independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and some 60 other judges in 2007, fearing that he would be declared ineligible to contest a presidential election while in military uniform.

The move triggered a countrywide protest, spearheaded by lawyers, which ultimately forced Musharraf to quit in August 2008.