Lawyers mount anti-Musharraf protests in Pakistan
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has got another front to tackle. He is already under siege from coaliation government over cutting his power. Lawyers have started their rally demanding reinstatment of former Chief Justice of Pakistan Supreme Court.
Lawyers rallied against President Pervez Musharraf across Pakistan on Monday, burning him in effigy, calling for his ouster and demanding the reinstatement of judges in the kick-off of a campaign that could strain the shaky coalition government. The "Long March" by lawyers to the capital was heralded by gatherings in major cities and is expected to culminate later this week with a rally and sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad. Thousands of political activists and others were expected to join the demonstrations.
Lawyers spearheaded opposition to Musharraf's rule last year. But their new protests to step up pressure on the U.S.-allied leader to resign are also deepening rifts between the two main parties in the administration that won election on anti-Musharraf platforms.
The protests come as the two-month-old government faces a slew of other tests, including an ailing economy and Islamic militancy — the latter a major concern of the United States and other nations in the West.
The two main groups in the ruling coalition — the Pakistan People's Party of Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — have failed to resolve differences over how to reinstate judges fired by the president in November. Sharif has pulled his members from the Cabinet and his party is participating in the protests.
Some 4,000 political activists, including Sharif supporters, massed in Karachi on Monday to castigate the president. They chanted "Go, Musharraf, go!" and "Musharraf is an American dog!"
In the central city of Multan, lawyers hung a large effigy of Musharraf, kicked it, beat it with sticks, and set it ablaze.
Multan is the main first destination for activists now traveling from various parts of the country for the "Long March." From there, the actual protest procession — much of it likely to involve cars and buses — was to officially start Tuesday and eventually end in Islamabad.
In the eastern city of Lahore, some 60 vehicles carrying lawyers and activists slowly toured the streets seeking to rally support. "We are out to save the judiciary — come with us!" participants chanted, handing out pamphlets. Some shopkeepers showered them with rose petals.
Musharraf ousted dozens of judges during several weeks of emergency rule that he imposed while facing legal challenges to his re-election as president by the previous parliament, which was dominated by his supporters.
Since winning February's parliamentary elections, the parties led by Zardari and Sharif have bickered over the mechanics of restoring the judges.
Sharif argues the judges' restoration should be simple, with an executive order from the prime minister. But Zardari wants to link the judges' return to a package of constitutional reforms that not only would affect the judiciary but also weaken the presidency.
They also are at odds over how to deal with Musharraf. Sharif calls for the president to be removed from office and put on trial for treason, but Zardari seems wary of confronting Musharraf, a former army commander who says he has no plan to resign.
At a news conference in London on Monday, Sharif said his party remained a part of the governing coalition because it did not want to strengthen Musharraf.
"But at the same time we are also pressing upon Mr. Zardari and the People's Party that it is very important that the judges are reinstated," said Sharif, who charged that the "other party hasn't honored its commitment."
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Zardari's party, said it was committed to restoring judges through action by parliament, not marches.
"When we were not in the government we also chose the path of demonstrations and processions and educated about the matter and brought it to a high pitch," Babar said. "Now that we are in the government our demonstrations, our processions will be meaningless. We have to do it ourselves through the parliament."
Various protest groups are expected to reach Islamabad by Thursday or Friday. They plan to stage a sit-in in front of parliament "until all judges are restored through an executive order," said Sardar Ismatullah, a lawyer in the movement.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said the government would not try to stop the demonstrators from marching on Islamabad.
"This is the right of people to demonstrate. As long as they are peaceful, we will be peaceful, and we are assured by them that they will be peaceful," said Malik, a Zardari ally.
Critics say the furor over the president — who now wields little authority — and the judges has distracted the government from dealing with power outages, high inflation and other critical issues.
The government also faces criticism from the United States for pursuing peace deals with militants in its border regions, agreements that American officials worry will give extremists a chance to regroup and intensify attacks in Afghanistan.