Lawyers rally, scuffle with police in Pakistan
LAHORE, Pakistan – Angry lawyers scuffled with police as protests erupted across Pakistan Wednesday over the removal of nation’s top judge, intensifying a crisis that threatens President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power.Musharraf suspended Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, on March 9 on unspecified allegations that he abused his office.Chaudhry has pursued human rights cases and rulings against the government, but officials say that was not the reason for Musharraf’s decision.However, lawyers are observing a nationwide strike and opposition parties accuse Musharraf of trying to tame the Supreme Court before elections likely to trigger legal challenges to his rule.The United States, which backs Musharraf for his pledge to return Pakistan to democracy as well as to fight al-Qaida, has expressed “deep concern” about the crisis. The European Union expressed similar misgivings to the Pakistani government.European envoys “stressed the importance the EU attaches to the respect for the independence of the judiciary, especially in view of the upcoming election process,” according to a statement from the German Embassy.The Foreign Ministry said the EU officials were “reminded that their concern was out of place as the government was fully committed to the freedom of expression, civil rights and respect for judiciary.”On Wednesday, about 3,000 lawyers rallied in the eastern city of Lahore, chanting anti-government slogans. The demonstrators staged a sit-in at a downtown traffic intersection near the Punjab provincial legislature.Lawyers also boycotted proceedings at courts throughout the province, said Ahsan Dhoon, president of the High Court Bar Association.Ahead of the planned protest, police detained about 100 opposition activists in raids on their homes in order to forestall potential violence, a Lahore police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.Aftab Cheema, operations chief of Lahore police, acknowledged that a “few people” had been picked up, but declined to be more precise.In the southwestern city of Quetta on Wednesday, about 200 lawyers scuffled with police in an anti-Musharraf rally where police swung batons and fired tear gas shells.Raja Rabnawaz, a member of the Baluchistan province Bar Council, said three lawyers were injured, one of them seriously after he was hit in the head by a tear gas shell. However, police denied anyone was hurt in the clash.Rallies also were called in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, and in the capital, Islamabad, where hundreds of supporters of opposition religious parties rallied near the Supreme Court. An Associated Press reporter saw police detain six demonstrators as they tried to breach a police cordon near the building.Imran Khan, a former cricket star and an opposition lawmaker, told the crowd it was witnessing “the beginning of a revolution.””This is not only a war by the political parties, this is everyone’s war,” he said.The protests and stinging criticism in Pakistan’s media have left Musharraf facing the biggest political crisis since he seized power in a 1999 coup.According to a government document reprinted in Pakistan’s The News, the allegations against Chaudhry include bullying officials to help his son secure a police job and driving an official car with a bigger-than-allowed engine. There is also a vague charge of “accepting accommodation with a litigant.”In a television interview on Monday, Musharraf insisted that a judicial panel examining complaints against Chaudhry is independent and that he will respect its verdict.However, critics have seized on incidents including the virtual house arrest imposed on Chaudhry and his family and a police raid on a TV station that broadcast images of officers fighting with demonstrators.Musharraf is expected to seek re-election as president from the outgoing parliament – a step that opposition parties likely will challenge before the Supreme Court.