Protests grow in Pakistan over judge’s suspension

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Special to The Times

For years, this nation’s top judge has been a thorn in the side of President Pervez Musharraf. But just how big a thorn did not become apparent until the leader tried to sack the independent-minded jurist last week.

On Friday, riot police used tear gas and batons on hundreds of demonstrators who had gathered in downtown Islamabad to protest the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Authorities detained scores of activists, carted away a prominent opposition figure and raided a popular private TV station that had closely covered the controversy.

The crackdown capped a week of growing protests that have presented Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup 7 1/2 years ago, with a difficult challenge. At stake, critics say, is the credibility of Pakistan’s justice system and, perhaps, of Musharraf’s own leadership.


The army general-turned-president suspended Chaudhry from his post March 9 on charges of misconduct and abuse of authority. Details have not been made public and Chaudhry has refused to resign, calling the charges against him a farce.

But outrage has built up quickly over what some consider a blatant ploy to get rid of a judge whose rulings had embarrassed the government, and to ensure a quiescent judiciary ahead of elections later this year. There is speculation that the Supreme Court, under Chaudhry, might not look favorably on an attempt by Musharraf to seek reelection while hanging on to his post as army chief.

Chaudhry also had angered Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies by insisting they answer allegations that they had detained more than 100 people listed as missing.

“More often than not, the judges [in Pakistan] have been rather pliable,” said Teresita Schaffer, an expert on South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “And of course this guy turned out to be less pliable than the government wanted, and the government went after him.”

Although Pakistani leaders have a history of using the judiciary for their own ends, the move to oust Chaudhry prompted lawyers and other activists to take to the streets, here in the capital and in other cities such as Lahore. Protests continued to grow as reports came in of Chaudhry being put under virtual house arrest and denied access to his lawyers.

Analysts say the strength of public opposition to Chaudhry’s removal has caught Musharraf by surprise.


On Friday, news media broadcast scenes of police violently dispersing the protesters assembled at the Supreme Court in downtown Islamabad, where Chaudhry had gone to defend himself in a hearing before a judicial panel. Afterward, there were signs that Musharraf was beginning to backpedal.

A Supreme Court panel ordered that restrictions on Chaudhry’s movements be lifted. The court also acknowledged his complaint of being manhandled by police and ordered the officers to explain their actions.

Musharraf, in a live telephone interview given to the private Geo channel, apologized for a police raid on the TV station, which aired footage of security forces smashing their way in and destroying property. The station had been forced Thursday night to yank one of its popular news shows, apparently because of its coverage of the protests over Chaudhry’s dismissal.

The raid “should have not happened, and I condemn it,” the Associated Press quoted Musharraf as saying during the phone interview. He said the “culprits responsible for it must be identified and action against them must be taken today.”

The Pakistani president also said earlier this week that he would respect the judicial panel’s decision on Chaudhry, leaving the door open for the chief justice’s reinstatement.

The political damage may be done, however. Musharraf is said to be worried over increasing frustration in Washington with his perceived laxity in cracking down on Al Qaeda and Taliban militants who have found shelter inside Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.


“The chief justice issue by itself wouldn’t undo Musharraf.... But it’s just one more thing that’s going badly,” Schaffer said, adding that “the army doesn’t like people going out on the streets.... The government’s got to be very nervous about this.”

Among the hundreds of demonstrators who swarmed downtown here were lawyers, human rights activists and opposition politicians, including some belonging to a hard-line Islamic coalition. Undeterred by concrete blocks, barbed wire and a huge complement of police, they chanted, “Go, Musharraf, go!”

Last week, a day before he was suspended, Chaudhry gave Pakistan’s intelligence agencies until the end of the month to respond to allegations that a number of missing people were actually in their custody, being held without due process.

The accusations have been embarrassing for the government. So was Chaudhry’s decision last year to nullify the privatization of Pakistan’s largest steel manufacturer.

“General Musharraf and his legal advisors should have realized that a judge who believed that public interest and public welfare could only be gauged and served through representative institutions would be a serious threat to his version of democracy,” columnist Khalid Jawed Khan wrote in a scathing opinion piece in Friday’s edition of the Dawn newspaper. “The general has never been so vulnerable.”


Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and staff writer Chu from New Delhi.