ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani judges dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf can only be reinstated if an incoming government strikes down constitutional changes he introduced, the attorney general said on Tuesday.
The fate of the judges looks set to be a flashpoint between important U.S. ally Musharraf, who seized power as army chief in 1999, and a new government made up of his opponents who swept a February 18 general election.
Musharraf sacked about 60 judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, after imposing emergency rule in early November. The judges were seen as hostile to Musharraf and some were about to rule on legal challenges to his rule.
Musharraf then packed the courts with pliant judges who rubber-stumped his actions, including constitutional amendments, the imposition of emergency rule and the sacking of the other judges.
But the two major parties that won the election, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have vowed to restore the judges through a parliamentary resolution.
If reinstated, the judges are expected to take up the challenges to Musharraf's rule and could declare unconstitutional his October re-election by legislators while he was still army chief and his imposition of emergency rule.
But Attorney General Malik Qayyum, the outgoing government's top lawyer, said the judges could not be restored by a parliamentary resolution and the government needed the support of two-thirds of members of parliament to annul Musharraf's constitutional changes.
"The judges cannot be restored through a parliamentary resolution or through any executive order," Qayyum told Reuters. "It can only be done through an amendment in the constitution with a two-thirds majority."
Musharraf's opponents look likely to be able to muster two-thirds of members in the lower house of parliament but not in the upper house Senate, where Musharraf's supporters hold a majority.
Supreme Court judges loyal to Musharraf met on Tuesday, a day after the newly elected National Assembly was sworn in, raising speculation that they might try to block parliament from reinstating the judges.
Aitzaz Ahsan, chairman of the Supreme Court Bar Association who has been spearheading a campaign against Musharraf, threatened on Monday to launch nationwide protests if the court sided with Musharraf.
But Qayyum said there was no such move on the Supreme Court's agenda.
Pakistan's Western allies and neighbors fear a confrontation between the president and a new government will herald more upheavals in a nuclear-armed state reeling from a wave of militant bombings.
Former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who Musharraf first suspended last March, and several other judges have been under house arrest since they were dismissed in November.
Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson