Musharraf critics, supporters rally over judge's suspension
Apr 24, 2007 - 7:53:18 PM
Islamabad, April 24 - Hundreds of opposition and government-loyal activists rallied for the first time in close proximity Tuesday in Islamabad over the suspension of Pakistan's top judge, while security forces acted as a firewall to prevent clashes between them.
Tension brewed as government supporters led by federal cabinet members denounced the protests that hit the country after President Pervez Musharraf sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9 over abuse-of-office allegations.
'We will not allow the opposition to practise politics of hooliganism and terrorism,' Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told a pro-establishment crowd that shouted slogans like 'We love Musharraf.'
Activists of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League - carried banners and posters in favour of the president, with a number of them also toting hockey sticks and wooden batons, raising the likelihood of violent incidents.
The PML leadership said its supporters would keep their distance from the opposition to avoid an escalation. But anti-Musharraf lawyers and political elements asked their people to remain outside the court building to stop the others from advancing.
Large numbers of police and paramilitary troops were on hand to keep the sides separated and managed to limit contact to isolated scuffles.
Chaudhry's removal from office has created a rallying point for opposition forces and poses one of the greatest challenges to Musharraf's authority since he took power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
Viewing the president's suspension of the judge as an attack on the independence of the judiciary, both liberal and hardline religious parties have thrown their support behind lawyers who have mounted almost continuous protest strikes across the country.
'Our struggle for the supremacy of the judiciary and restoration of real democracy will continue until the fall of the Musharraf regime,' said parliamentarian Chaudhry Nisar, a staunch supporter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by the current president more than seven years ago.
In vehement speeches in Islamabad, opposition stalwarts demanded that the president take back his 'mala fide' case and reinstate Chaudhry, who they claim is being punished for earlier rulings that went against the government.
Meanwhile, the country's top court heard Chaudhry's constitutional petition challenging the composition and proceedings of the five-member Supreme Judicial Council - deliberating the case against him.
However, the judge heading the bench said it would not be possible for him to hear the case as he was a party to the controversial presidential move against Chaudhry. He referred the case to acting chief justice Rana Bhagwandas to decide on further proceedings.
Meanwhile, Chaudhry also appeared Tuesday for the sixth hearing in the presidential reference against him, despite claims of bias among the five-member panel adjudicating in the misconduct case against him.
Chaudhry's legal counsels claim that three of its members have personal grievances against the 'non-functional' chief justice.
The SJC has issued a code of conduct for protesters and journalists covering the judicial crisis, advising them not to politicize the constitutional issue. But media still gave extensive coverage, prompting cases of retaliation by the government.
Two television stations were briefly taken off the air. Police on rampage also damaged Geo news, as it broadcast live footage of disturbances at the lawyers' protests.
The other, the private Aaj channel, last Sunday received a notice from state media regulators for alleged violation of the council's directives and for not fulfilling procedural requirements for airing programmes. The channel has denied both charges.
'We take the notice as totally unjustified,' Aaj managing director Arshad Aziz Zuberi told DPA.
Media workers across the country have also demonstrated and condemned alleged government attempts to gag the press.
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