US Senator Feingold wants Pakistan's judges restored

Sen. Feingold wants Pakistan's judges restored
By NAHAL TOOSI – AFP, May 27, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — A top U.S. senator on Tuesday urged Pakistan to quickly restore dozens of judges ousted by President Pervez Musharraf, wading into a subject that has pushed the country's new coalition government to the verge of collapse.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), one of several American lawmakers visiting Pakistan this week, also said it was important for the United States to engage the country's various political parties to make up for the past "mistake" of relying solely on Musharraf.

"This is a terribly important country for the United States and vice versa," Feingold said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I've indicated to everybody we want to strengthen the relationship between our two countries."

Musharraf, long an ally of the U.S. in the war on terror, purged the benches of some 60 judges and declared emergency rule last year to avoid legal challenges to his presidency.

Anti-Musharraf parties headed by Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif won February elections. Both want to restore the judges, but Sharif has argued it can be done through a simple order from the prime minister, while Zardari wants to link their return to constitutional reforms.

The dispute led Sharif to pull his ministers from the Cabinet earlier this month.

Feingold said he was not trying to side with a particular party. But his take on the situation after talking to several observers, as well as the deposed chief justice of the Supreme Court, was that coupling the judges' return with other matters was not necessary.

"Other reforms may well be appropriate," he said. "At an absolute minimum — and first — I am calling for these judges to be reinstated.

"It is a matter of whether the legal system in Pakistan is perceived around the world as one that is based on the rule of law. It's also one of the most important issues to the people in Pakistan."

Also Tuesday, Zardari met with Sharif to court his support for a set of constitutional reforms designed to strip Musharraf of many of his powers.

Zardari's party last week unveiled some details of the package, including ending Musharraf's right to dissolve parliament and appoint military chiefs. The proposed reforms would also pave the way for the ousted judges to return.

Sharif's party has reserved formal comment on the package until it sees the full draft, but its members again indicated on Tuesday that restoring the judges was their top priority.

Feingold declined to say whether Musharraf, a retired army chief, should go.

"What we don't want to do is to continue what we were doing before, which is to make our whole policy based on a relationship with Gen. Musharraf," Feingold said. "That was a mistake. That had a very undemocratic flavor to it."

The senator, who serves on the Senate foreign relations, intelligence, and judiciary committees, said he was keen on improving the relationship with Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is rampant, in order to combat terrorism.

But he said he shared the skepticism in Washington about the new government's efforts to pursue peace deals with militant groups in Pakistan's regions bordering Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have warned such deals could simply give militants time to regroup and intensify attacks on American forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, on Tuesday urged the United States to share more intelligence in the fight against terrorism.

In response, Feingold told the AP, "Both Pakistan and the United States should improve our information and intelligence-sharing activities."

Associated Press correspondents Munir Ahmad and Sadaqat Jan contributed to this report.

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