Pakistan protests mount to oust Musharraf

Thousands of demonstrators called for President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation again yesterday in renewed protests across Pakistan against his heavy-handed removal of the country’s chief justice in what is becoming the dictator’s most serious political crisis since coming to power almost eight years ago.

Lawyers and political activists lined the street outside Pakistan’s supreme court demanding an end to General Musharraf’s regime.

“It is the beginning of the revolution,” Imran Khan, former cricketer and now chief of the Justice Party, said to demonstrators amid chants of “Down with Musharraf.”

The surprise appearance of the day came from retired lieutenant-general Hameed Gul, former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence Agency, who broke through police barriers dressed in his military jacket, promising to call 2.2 million retired army personnel onto the roads if police tried to stop him.

Since Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry was suspended a fortnight ago on allegations of nepotism and abuse of authority, thousands of lawyers and opposition protesters have clashed with riot police, seven judges have resigned along with one of three deputy attorneys-general, and police ransacked the offices of one of the more independent-minded television stations that has been highlighting the protests.

“What is at stake is the principle of separation of powers,” said Munir Malik, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, who has been vocal in his condemnation of Gen. Musharraf’s move. “This judiciary, lame as it was, was still a hurdle in the way of absolute power required to rule roughshod and impose your will over the people of Pakistan. I believe the Chief Justice became a nuisance and was in the way.”

With elections due in eight months, and Gen. Musharraf expected to give up his post as army chief, many believe Chief Justice Chaudhry was the key man standing in the way of his bid to stay in power. The constitution, as it stands, prevents the President from remaining in office after the vote.

Chief Justice Chaudhry has been known for making very strong, activist decisions on a number of issues that directly affect the President’s power. Most recently, he has chastised the government for not doing more to address the issue of forced disappearances.

Gen. Musharraf has been walking a tightrope for some time now. During the first two years after coming to power in a 1999 bloodless coup, he was virtually isolated by the international community and branded a military dictator. As a major U.S. ally in the war on terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks, however, he has had to face increasing pressure to move toward democracy and prevent the growing support for the Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.

Opposition parties are making the most of the current situation. “This has happened because, in 2007, the general has to make some illegal amendments to the constitution and the biggest hindrance in his way was the chief justice,” said Hafiz Hussain Ahmad, a senior leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, a six-party alliance of Islamist groups.

The crisis began March 9 when Chief Justice Chaudhry was summoned to meet a uniformed Gen. Musharraf in his home and was suspended and put under house arrest. His communication to the outside world was cut off; even his newspaper delivery was stopped.

The President has not given details of the allegations, but Pakistani newspapers said yesterday Chief Justice Chaudhry is accused of using his position to get a job for his son, using too many official cars and requesting the use of government airplanes. His lawyers deny the accusations.

Gen. Musharraf has put the case before the Supreme Judicial Council, a five-member body of judges charged with evaluating the merits of the case and taking permanent action. Chief Justice Chaudhry’s hearing, scheduled for yesterday, has been postponed until April 3.

Legal experts say Gen. Musharraf had the right to take Chief Justice Chaudhry before the council, but most agree he erred in suspending him before the council considered the charges, and that putting the country’s top judge under house arrest was unacceptable.

Gen. Musharraf, however, has survived previous protests and assassination attempts, and observers say he can ride this out, too, but many speculate that he may have to give up some of his power to appease protesters.

Asked on television whether he was ready to team with Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party to remain in power, the General remained elusive. “All parties will contest,” he said. “More than that I cannot say anything.”