Pak lawyers begin rally for judges' restoration
Hundreds of Pakistani lawyers and political activists began a cross-country rally on Wednesday to press the new government to restore judges President Pervez Musharraf fired.
Lawyers have been at the forefront of a campaign against staunch US ally Musharraf since he tried to dismiss the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, last year.
Chaudhry and dozens of other judges were purged after Musharraf declared emergency rule in November.
The rally, dubbed a "long march" though the lawyers are travelling in a motor convoy, set off from the southeastern city of Multan bound for Islamabad, where they are due on Friday.
Chaudhry addressed the lawyers before they left, calling for the independence of the judiciary in a country where all rulers have interfered with the legal system.
"If the courts are allowed to work independently than I assure you, this country does not need to worry about any danger," Chaudhry told about 1,500 lawyers and activists, most from the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The protest will ramp up pressure on Musharraf to step down. He has been isolated since his allies were trounced in a February election. Opponents are demanding he quit and face trial.
It is also a challenge to the two-month-old coalition government led by the party of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and a threat to the coalition's tenuous unity.
Both the government and lawyers 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 bombings and other violence, trouble cannot be ruled out.
Sixteen people were killed in a bomb attack on a lawyers' protest in Islamabad in July last year.
Pakistani stocks, rattled by political worries recently, were higher ahead of a budget announcement later in the day.
Analysts say it is not clear how much support the rally will get from ordinary Pakistanis struggling with surging fuel and food inflation and power cuts. Protests over prices have erupted and that anger could bolster support for the lawyers.
Some Multan residents said they backed the lawyers but Mohammad Asghar said he didn't: "These rallies just create disturbances for the public who are more worried about prices."
"MUSHARRAF'S DAYS ARE NUMBERED"
The lawyers plan to hold a sit-in in front of parliament in Islamabad, where paramilitary troops were deployed at government buildings and shipping containers were placed across a main road leading to the assembly.
Other roads were blocked with barbed wire barricades.
Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said Musharraf's days as president were numbered and the protest was aimed at pressing parliament to restore the judges.
Sharif's party, the second biggest in the coalition, is taking part in the rally because it says Bhutto's party has been dragging its feet over the restoration of the judges. Sharif flew back from a visit to London on Wednesday for the protest.
Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who has led Bhutto's party since her assassination in December, says he wants the judges restored through constitutional changes, but those might take months to introduce.
Sharif and the lawyers' movement want the judges restored immediately through a parliamentary resolution.
Analysts say that if Chaudhry were reinstated, he could take up legal challenges to Musharraf's presidency which could lead to his ouster.
Chaudhry might also review an amnesty that wiped out corruption cases against Zardari and other Bhutto party politicians.
That, critics say, explains Zardari's foot-dragging.
The uneasy coalition partners are also divided on how to handle Musharraf. Zardari says he does not recognise Musharraf as a constitutional president and would reduce him to a figurehead under the proposed constitutional changes.
Sharif, who then army chief Musharraf ousted in 1999, wants Musharraf impeached and tried for treason.