ISLMABAD, Pakistan -- Deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, an icon of resistance to the rule of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, emerged late yesterday from nearly five months of house arrest. He was freed as the first act of a Benazir Bhutto loyalist elected as prime minister hours earlier.
It was the latest tumultuous twist in a Pakistani political saga that over the past year has seen the fall from grace of the U.S.-backed Musharraf, the Dec. 27 assassination of Bhutto and the triumph of her party in last month's elections.
Yousaf Raza Gillani, picked as prime minister by Bhutto's party and its main coalition partner over the weekend, won an overwhelming endorsement by parliament. Addressing lawmakers, he declared he was ordering the release of Chaudhry and other detained judges.
Gillani's confirmation was a highly emotional moment for Bhutto's followers, who had hoped last year when she returned from exile to lead her party in elections that she would claim the post. Her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, wept as he watched the vote tally from the gallery. Moments later, he pumped Gillani's hand, smiling through his tears.
The new prime minister was to sign an executive order freeing the judges today following his formal swearing-in, but joyous supporters of the chief justice weren't waiting for that.
With police looking on but not intervening, hundreds of Chaudhry's backers breached police barricades and mobbed the residence where the popular chief justice had been under house arrest since Nov. 3, when Musharraf declared martial law and fired dozens of judges in part to avoid a legal challenge to his own election.
After hours of cheering and chanting by the crowd in his front yard, Chaudhry emerged onto the villa's balcony surrounded by his beaming family, briefly thanking pro-democracy activists who had fought for months for his freedom.
"We believe in the rule of law," he told supporters, who danced and waved flags and portraits of him.
Municipal authorities said Chaudhry and other judges were free as of last night to move about as they wished, but he did not immediately leave his compound or mingle with the crowd. Lawyer colleagues said the former justice would comport himself with caution - refraining, for example, from leading a march to the high court to demand reinstatement, a possibility raised earlier by backers.
"He is very much conscious of the dignity of his office," said leading lawyers' activist Athar Minallah. He said Chaudhry and the other deposed judges would wait for parliament to act on their reinstatement.
The new ruling coalition has said it will move within 30 days to restore the previous judiciary - a step which, if carried out, would represent a sharp new challenge to Musharraf, and one that could prompt his resignation.
The former general, who seized power in a 1999 coup, imposed a six-week state of emergency late last year and ousted dozens of judges as the Supreme Court was poised to rule on the validity of his election by the previous parliament. It was thought that the ruling would go against him.
The parliament's lopsided 264-42 vote yesterday endorsing Gillani as prime minister was seen as a barometer of broad sentiment against Musharraf, who has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Bhutto's party and another opposition party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have formed a new ruling coalition that has expressed determination to relegate Musharraf to the sidelines, if not oust him altogether.
After the vote tally was read out, pandemonium erupted in the parliament chamber. Lawmakers broke into cheers and shouts of "Long live Bhutto!" It took Gillani a full 10 minutes to make his way to the podium, mobbed by well-wishers who shook his hand and embraced him.
"It is because of the martyrdom of Benazir Bhutto that democracy is being restored," Gillani told the parliament. "It is a historic event."
Aides said Gillani would begin selecting his Cabinet ministers as soon as he was sworn in.
The firing and imprisonment of dozens of judges was one of the key factors that turned public opinion against Musharraf. Most of them have since been freed, but Chaudhry and his family, including a partly disabled 8-year- old son, had been detained in his home since the night he was deposed.
Outside Chaudhry's home, the celebrations continued into the night.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.