Anjum Naveed  /  AP
Pakistani lawyers and supporters of opposition parties chant slogans behind barbed wires during an anti-government rally near Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday. Rival rallies were held in the capital during a hearing on a top judge's suspension.
updated 4/24/2007 2:32:18 PM ET 2007-04-24T18:32:18

Pakistani police separated supporters and opponents of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf as the two sides held rival rallies in the capital Tuesday during a hearing on a top judge's contentious suspension.

Lawyers and opposition activists have organized several protests since Musharraf removed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on March 9, triggering a political crisis that is testing the president's hold on power.

The government insists it suspended Chaudhry only after receiving credible complaints that he had abused his office — for example, by using his position to seek a plum police job for his son.

However, critics accuse the government of trying to oust an independent-minded judge ahead of possible legal challenges to Musharraf's continued rule.

Chaudhry has denied the charges, and vowed to fight for his job.

About 600 supporters of the ruling PML-Q party joined the fray Tuesday for the first time, marching from their party headquarters toward a court in the center of the government district in the capital, Islamabad.

They halted at one end of a broad boulevard leading to Parliament, where police had laid coils of barbed wire across the asphalt. About 1,000 opposition activists and lawyers massed near an identical barrier about 200 yards away.

Hundreds of riot police lined up to prevent anyone from climbing over the wire or sneaking around it.

Some of the government supporters carried pictures of the president in his military uniform. They chanted, "Musharraf we are with you," and "Wherever you go, we will follow."

Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani told the crowd, which included several other Cabinet members, that "If Musharraf gives the word, we can bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets."

"The opposition is politicizing a totally legal issue," he said, adding that the lawyers "should confine themselves to their profession."

The PML-Q supporters later dispersed without incident.

In all, about 2,500 people protested in support of Chaudhry Tuesday near the Supreme Court, where he attended a hearing of a five-judge panel examining his case.

Similar rallies were held in other cities including Lahore and Karachi.

Opposition alleges harassment
Opposition parties complain that police have rounded up hundreds of their activists in an attempt to hamper the protests. Authorities this week also moved against a private television station which has covered the judicial crisis closely.

Regulators have accused Aaj TV of breaching a code of conduct by "casting aspersions on the judiciary, bringing the army into disrepute and running propaganda campaigns against individuals," said Syed Talat Hussain, Aaj's head of news and current affairs.

Hussein said the station denied the charge and would go to court to defend itself. Its reporting would continue unchanged, he said.

A spokesman for the PEMRA media regulator, confirmed that Aaj had been asked to explain the alleged breach, but provided few details.

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has pledged to restore democracy, is expected to seek election to a new term as president from the current federal and provincial assemblies, which were elected in 2002. His supporters predict he will obtain a clear majority.

However, opposition parties say the 2002 polls were fixed, and insist that only the lawmakers chosen in parliamentary elections due at the end of 2007 will have the legitimacy to endorse the next head of state.

It also remains unclear when Musharraf, a close ally of the U.S. in its campaign against terrorism, will relinquish his post as army chief.

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