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Lawyers' leader may ease Pakistan political tension

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The election of a new leader of Pakistan’s lawyer community may help ease growing tension between the government and the judiciary, analysts say, while at the same time strengthening Pakistan’s democracy.

Renowned human rights activist Asma Jahangir Wednesday was elected president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, defeating rivals seen as allies of the dominating judiciary against the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Lawyers have emerged as key political players in Pakistani politics after they launched a popular campaign for the restoration of scores of judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

Zardari, who succeeded Musharraf as president, reinstated the judges last year but tensions have been simmering between the government and judiciary after Chaudhry struck down a law giving amnesty to Zardari, his top aides and thousands of others.

Jahangir’s election is a milestone in more ways than one. She’s the first woman to head the SCBA and an unabashed advocate of minority rights. And while her margin of victory was small, it suggests a split between the pro- and anti-government factions within the legal community.

“Asma Jahangir’s election is going to strengthen the government against the judiciary,” Anis Jilani, a senior lawyer, said.

This, in turn, could allow a more stable balance of power between Pakistan’s civilian institutions, a separation most analysts believe is crucial to strengthening democracy.

“Asma’s voice will carry weight as a constitutionally valid voice in spelling out the correct place of parliament, executive and judiciary within Pakistan’s constitutional work,” political commentator Nasim Zehra wrote in the Daily Times newspaper.

Jahangir earlier this year warned that Pakistan could see a “judicial dictatorship in the country if the judiciary continuously moves ahead in its present direction.”

The judiciary has been accused by critics of engaging in a politically motivated persecution of the government. Supporters say it is trying to clean up corruption and reform Pakistani politics.

Speculation has been rife in Pakistan that Chaudhry may reject a government appeal to reinstate the amnesty law, which could spark a new political crisis in the south Asian nation critical for U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Jahangir has also been critical of lawyers who have been supporting the judiciary in its row with the government, saying the bar should not take sides.

Human Rights Watch hailed Jahangir’s election as victory for the “country’s transition to genuine civilian rule.”

Though pro-government lawyers fully supported Jahangir in her election, analysts caution that the independence-minded SCBA president is unlikely to blindly support the government.

“She will not favor unjudicious moves by the judiciary... but if she finds any mistake from the government, she is bold enough to stand up against them,” M. Ziauddin, editor of daily Express Tribune, said. “She will act as a balancing factor.”

This was reflected in her comments after her victory.

“The bar will not speak the language of judges,” she told reporters after her election. “It will also not speak the language of any political party. It will have its own voice.”

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton