About 1,000 Pakistani lawyers and political activists gathered on Monday for the start of a cross-country rally to demand the restoration of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf.
Lawyers have spearheaded opposition to Musharraf since the former army chief tried to dismiss the country’s then top judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, last year. Chaudhry and dozens of other judges were purged after Musharraf declared emergency rule in November.
The protest, due to reach Islamabad on Friday, will increase pressure on staunch US ally Musharraf to step down. He has been isolated since his allies were defeated in a February general election and some opponents are demanding he quit and face trial.
"We are out to save the judiciary. We are out to save the country," Mehmood-ul-Hassan, president of the Karachi Bar Association told the rally as lawyers chanted "hang Musharraf" in a street in the centre of Karachi.
Dubbed a "long march" even though the lawyers will travel in a motor convoy from Karachi to Multan, where the rally to Islamabad will officially begin, it is the first major protest the new government will face.
Sardar Asmatullah Khan, president of the Rawalpindi Bar Association, said the lawyers might hold a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad.
Both sides have vowed to keep the peace, with the government saying the lawyers have the right to protest. But in a nuclear-armed country plagued by militant bombs and other violence, trouble can not be ruled out.
The protest could also trigger even deeper splits in the fragile coalition led by the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, which is seen as dragging its feet on the restoration of Chaudhry and other sacked judges.
Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, has said his Pakistan Peoples’ Party does not recognise Musharraf as a constitutional president, and has drafted a constitutional package that would reduce him to a figurehead role and eventually lead to the reinstatement of the judges.