By Kamran Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – More than 2,000 lawyers and flag-waving opposition supporters rallied outside the Supreme Court in the Pakistani capital on Tuesday in support of the countryâ€™s suspended top judge who appealed for a public hearing.
The governmentâ€™s move to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9 outraged the legal community, which sees it as an attack on the independence of the judiciary, and galvanized political opposition to President Pervez Musharraf.
Protesters, including lawyers and political activists from an Islamist alliance and liberal party supporters, chanted â€œGo Musharraf goâ€ on a main road outside the court.
â€œOur protest has turned into a big campaign and the government has no option but to reinstate the chief justice,â€ said Raja Pervez Ashraf, secretary general of former prime minister Benazir Bhuttoâ€™s party.
â€œUltimately, our movement will end in the removal of General Musharraf.â€
Police with batons, helmets and riot shields blocked the road outside the Supreme Court to traffic but made no move to disperse the protesters.
Analysts said Musharraf might have moved to sack the independent-minded Chaudhry because he feared the judge would not allow him to keep the post of army chief, which he is due to give up this year when he is also expected to seek another presidential term.
The uproar is seen as a major challenge to Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, but the protests have not attracted huge crowds and analysts say he still has the support of the military and is expected to weather the storm.
Police detained scores of activists on Monday in a bid to thwart the protests, which were also being held in other cities as lawyers boycotted courts across the country.
Among those detained was the leader of the six-party religious alliance, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who was confined to his home in the capital. He, nevertheless, addressed the rally by telephone hooked up to a loudspeaker and vowed bigger protests.
The government has not specified the accusations against Chaudhry but a newspaper has reported the main one appeared to be that he pulled rank to help his son get a public sector job.
The crowd cheered, clapped and threw purple rose petals as Chaudhry arrived at the court to appear for the third time before a panel of judges in closed session.
Chaudhryâ€™s lawyers argued that his hearing should be public, one of his lawyers, Tariq Mehmud, said after the hearing. Chaudhry has said he did nothing wrong and wanted an open trial.
The Supreme Judicial Council will hold its next hearing on April 13, when it is expected to give its ruling on the request.
Protests held to coincide with Chaudhryâ€™s previous hearings turned violent with police beating rock-throwing demonstrators, firing teargas and rubber bullets and smashing up a media office.
There was no serious trouble on Tuesday, but protesters roughed up several men in business suits who were described as â€œpro-Musharraf lawyers.â€
Khalid Ranjha, a lawyer for Musharraf, later informed the Supreme Court that he would not follow the case to protest against the attitude of the lawyers.
â€œThey (lawyers) tried to beat me and used abusive language. Thatâ€™s why, I have decided not the pursue this case,â€ Ranjha told Reuters.
About 1,500 lawyers marched in Lahore and about 700 rallied in Karachi and in Quetta chanting anti-government slogans. A smaller protest was held in Peshawar.
Musharraf has defended his actions, saying everything he had done had been in line with the constitution. He also said elections would be held on time around the end of the year.