Written for CBSNews.com by Farhan Bokhari, reporting from Islamabad.
Within minutes of winning his post, Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, ordered the release Monday of judges arrested last November under orders from President Pervez Musharraf.
Gilani, a party loyalist to slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was sworn in Tuesday by Musharraf as supporters in the legislature chanted "long live Bhutto!" Gilani won a sweeping majority in a vote by members of the parliament on Monday.
"I order the immediate release of detained judges of the superior judiciary," Gilani said in his maiden speech to members of the lower house of parliament, known as the national assembly.
Gilani's order immediately signaled a significant setback to Musharraf's power in Pakistan which may eventually force him out of power. The detained judges included Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, former chief justice of the supreme court of Pakistan, who was placed under house arrest within hours of the imposition of nationwide emergency rule by Musharraf in November.
Chaudhry, who appeared outside his home to wave to cheering supporters Tuesday, was widely seen as an independent-minded judge who posed a potential political threat to the rule of U.S.-backed Musharraf. At the time of his dismissal, Chaudhry was hearing a legal challenge which questioned Musharraf's decision to become president in last October's presidential elections while also serving as the chief of army staff.
Under Pakistan's constitution, retired government officials including the army chief must wait at least two years after retirement before running for political office.
"If this release of judges is the first step towards their eventual rehabilitation (to the bench), it is possible that Chaudhry will return to hear the case (against Musharraf)," one leader of Gilani's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) told CBS News on condition of anonymity. "It's hard to tell if the judges will be restored soon," he said.
A senior government official who knows Musharraf said the release of the judges did not necessarily mean that they will be heading toward rehabilitation. Shortly after dismissing the judges last November Musharraf moved to appoint their successors, including a new chief justice the Supreme Court, in a move some legal experts say effectively blocked the return of the former judges.
"The complete rehabilitation of the judges is still a distant prospect," said the government official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.
However, Western diplomats warn Chaudhry could return to a hero's welcome - given the outcry and outpouring of support he received when Musharraf dismissed him in March 2007 on vague charges of corruption. Before returning to his job as chief justice through a landmark verdict by his peers, Chaudhry traveled across Pakistan and was received by large crowds of supporters among lawyers and civil society activists.
On Tuesday, one senior Western diplomat who has monitored Pakistani politics for the past three years warned that Musharraf faces his most difficult test with the arrival of a government comprised of his staunchest political opponents. "The outlook for president Musharraf's presidency today is far from perfect. This new government will lose no opportunity to raise pressure on the president," the diplomat told CBS News.
Western diplomats have said in recent days they will be watching closely to see if the new government indicates any fundamental changes to Pakistan's support for the U.S.-led war on terror. In his rule over Pakistan for more than eight years, Musharraf has built close ties with the Washington and earned the reputation of being one of President Bush's faithful allies - much to the detriment of is image at home.
By Farhan Bokhari