Police fired tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators Friday and detained scores of political activists, including an opposition party leader and a former national president, in a bid to stifle protests at the ouster of Pakistan’s top judge.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s week-old decision to suspend Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, over unspecified allegations that he misused his office, has sparked a nationwide lawyers’ strike and accusations that the military ruler wants a compliant judiciary ahead of national elections.
Hundreds of supporters surrounded Chaudhry’s car as he arrived at the court on Friday for a second hearing before a five-member panel of senior judges who are charged with deciding whether he should be fired or reinstated.
Police and paramilitary troops at roadblocks prevented more sympathizers from approaching the court building in Islamabad’s government district.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the chief of the hardline Islamist coalition, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, and at least seven other MMA lawmakers were arrested and an Associated Press reporter saw them being driven away in a police vehicle.
One of the lawmakers, Mohammed Usman, told AP by phone from the police van that he was beaten by police outside the court.
“God will punish Musharraf for what he has done with the chief justice,” he said.
Officers fired tear gas and charged one group of protesters with wooden batons near the court. Demonstrators responded by throwing rocks. Footage shown on Pakistan’s Geo television channel also showed police riding armored cars and firing what appeared to be rubber bullets.
‘We do not need to interfere’
There were similar clashes between police and demonstrators in the eastern city of Lahore, where former President Rafiq Tarar was among hundreds of people rallied in support of Chaudhry. Reporters saw Tarar, a former supreme court judge who served as president from 1988-2001, being taken away in a police vehicle. A police official said he would be taken home and released.
Dozens of opposition activists were detained in overnight raids in Islamabad and neighboring Rawalpindi, and more than 200 were arrested in Lahore, police and government officials told AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The government insists its actions against Chaudhry are not political.
“I promise to you that the judiciary will take (the) decision. We do not need to interfere in this,” Musharraf told a public rally on Thursday.
But lawyers say his action is a grave threat to the judiciary’s independence. Opposition politicians suspect Musharraf of removing a judge who has embarrassed the authorities in several high-profile cases.
With parliamentary elections due within a year, the issue is particularly sensitive. Musharraf is expected to seek re-election from the outgoing assembly, and has given no indication that he is willing to yield to opposition demands that he give up his post as chief of the army — a stance likely to draw complaints to the Supreme Court.
‘How would I face my fellow judges?’
The U.S. government, which says it values Musharraf’s commitment to restoring democracy as well to countering terrorism, said Thursday it was watching the situation closely.
“It is a matter of deep concern, and we believe that the resolution of this matter should take place in a way that is completely transparent and strictly in accordance with Pakistan’s laws,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Critics say those conditions have already been breached, after police allegedly manhandled the chief justice on his way to the first hearing on Tuesday and restricted his movements and contacts with his lawyers, as well cutting off his telephone.
However, he still managed to give an interview to a Pakistani newspaper.
“I had an easy way out by resigning. But, I decided to protect the respect of the judiciary and my professional honor,” he was quoted as saying in Friday’s edition of The Nation.
“How would I face my fellow judges, the lawyers community and my children? They all look up to me. Had I caved in, they would say that I talked a lot but when the time came, I couldn’t take a stand.”