ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state of emergency former President Pervez Musharraf imposed in 2007 was unconstitutional and declared invalid the appointments of judges he made during that period.
The decision could lay the groundwork for treason charges against the ex-military ruler, and some fear it could cause political turmoil at a time when Pakistan is battling a Taliban insurgency. But the court said the ruling -- the most severe against a former military leader -- would strengthen democracy in a country plagued by repeated military dictatorships.
The 14-member bench that delivered the ruling was headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whose attempted ouster by Musharraf spurred much of the political turmoil that ultimately led to the strongman's downfall.
''The constitution is supreme, and this decision will strengthen democracy and democratic institutions,'' Chaudhry said.
The court added that rulings made by the judges who were improperly appointed could still stand, and told Parliament to decide which of the laws that Musharraf pushed through during the unconstitutional emergency could remain on the books. Musharraf declared the emergency when it appeared the Supreme Court might challenge his eligibility for office. The measures -- which were accompanied by mass detentions and harsh media restrictions -- enraged an already emboldened opposition. Eventually, under domestic and international pressure, Musharraf allowed elections that brought his foes to power in February 2008. Under threat of impeachment, he stepped down in August 2008. Ever since, many opponents have demanded that he be held accountable.
Musharraf, who is living in London, ignored a summons to appear before the court or send a lawyer this week to explain his actions. A man who answered the phone at a number for Musharraf in Britain said the retired general had no comment. ''He's not commenting; he was not represented at the court,'' the man said. He declined to give his name and hung up when asked what Musharraf's plans were.
The court decision was eagerly awaited by many Pakistanis, especially lawyers who led a movement that helped push Musharraf from office. Many gathered across the country, dancing in the streets and cheering when the verdict was announced. ''Today we have to a great extent achieved our goal, that is independence of judiciary,'' Hamid Khan, one of the petitioners who brought the case to court, told The Associated Press. ''The purpose of this whole exercise is to block military dictators' intervention in future which we have been seeing again and again in past.''
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani welcomed the decision, describing as a good omen for the future of democracy in Pakistan, which has been run by the army for about half of its nearly 62-year existence. Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari, also hailed the decision, describing it as ''the last nail in the coffin of dictatorship.'' Because of a legal twist, one measure that could come up for review is an ordinance -- signed by Musharraf before the emergency -- that granted amnesty in corruption cases to Zardari and his wife, slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Zardari succeeded Bhutto as leader of the Pakistan People's Party after she was assassinated in December 2007. As president, he enjoys broad legal immunity for the duration of his term, even if Parliament overturns the amnesty deal. But prominent lawyer Athar MinAllah said the case paved the way for trying Musharraf on treason charges, which could carry the death penalty. ''It has made basis stronger to proceed against him if somebody wants to,'' he said, but noted that such charges can only be filed by the federal government.
Musharraf seized power in a 1999 military coup and became a key ally in the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that sparked the American-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. In early 2007, he dismissed Chaudhry as the court was about to rule on the validity of Musharraf's holding two offices -- that of president and chief of army staff. Chaudhry's removal triggered mass lawyer-led protests that damaged Musharraf's popularity. The court managed to bring Chaudhry back, but faced with growing rancor and fearing he could be ousted, Musharraf declared the emergency, tossing out Chaudhry again along with around 60 other judges. The move deepened anger against Musharraf, who eventually lifted the emergency. He stepped down as army chief and allowed parliamentary elections the following February that brought his political foes to power. But even after his resignation, the fate of the judges caused fissures among those who came to power. A coalition government of Zardari's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N fell apart over the slow pace of reinstating the jurists.
Ultimately, facing escalating lawyer-led protests, Zardari agreed to reinstate Chaudhry in March. Ever since, there have been rumblings about whether Musharraf would have to answer in court for his actions. Some argue that holding him accountable would deter military strongmen from trying to seize power in the future. Others fear pursuing Musharraf could shake the political establishment and reopen old wounds at a time when Pakistan is already saddled with reviving its economy and battling a Taliban militancy. Pakistan's army is winding down a three-month-old offensive against the Taliban in the northwestern Swat Valley, but sporadic violence continues.Six militants died in a recent clash, the military said in a statement Friday afternoon that covered the previous 24 hours. In Baluchistan to the southwest, police officials said a grenade attack against a paramilitary vehicle killed two paramilitary soldiers and one bystander.SOURCE: www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/07/31/worl