Removal of Pakistan's Chief Justice Leads to Protests, Resignations

Five judges resigned Monday and hundreds of lawyers demonstrated to protest President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's removal of Pakistan's chief justice, deepening a political crisis for the military leader.

Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on March 9 over unspecified allegations that he had abused his authority.

The move has sparked a nationwide lawyers' strike and angry protests by lawyers and opposition activists, drawing a forceful police response and hundreds of arrests.

Critics claim Musharraf, who serves as both army chief and president, sought to remove the strong-willed Chaudhry ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections due within a year as legal challenges to his rule could have been brought to the Supreme Court. The government says the move was not politically motivated.

Five judges submitted their resignations, following another who quit last week in protest of police manhandling of Chaudhry.

"I have waited a few days before addressing you, in the hope something will be done to remedy the harm done to the judicial organ of the state. It seems I have waited in vain," Lahore High Court Judge Jawad S. Khawaja said in a resignation letter sent to Musharraf. It was read to The Associated Press by Khawaja's wife.

In Karachi, 1st Senior Civil Judge Ashraf Yar Khan said he was leaving his post because of "the present situation in the country" regarding the judiciary. Two more civil judges resigned in Karachi and another quit in the southern town of Pano Aqil, a judicial official in Karachi said on condition of anonymity because he did have permission to speak to the media.

About 1,000 lawyers rallied in Karachi, chanting "Go, Musharraf, go!" and "Free the chief justice!"

Lawyers in the city boycotted court proceedings and announced a strike for Wednesday, when a judicial complaint council will resume hearing Chaudhry's case, said Ali Ahmed Kurd, deputy chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council. The panel of top judges is meant to decide whether Chaudhry should be fired or reinstated.

Munir A. Malik, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said lawyers were also striking in the cities of Quetta, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Lahore. He said 80 lawyers have been arrested on charges including treason, terrorism, damaging property and violating a ban on rallies. He predicted there would be more detentions.

"As the movement will increase, so will repression against lawyers," he said.

Pakistan's government is dominated by Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, promising to restore democracy. But the unceremonious handling of Chaudhry and brute force used to contain protests over his removal have sparked public outrage.

"The episode has deepened the misgivings in the entire society toward his regime," wrote academic Ayesha Siddiqa in The Daily Times on Monday. "It is not just the lawyers but also the people at large who are now extremely suspicious of what the president is doing."

Musharraf has defended his action, saying he had no personal differences with Chaudhry and would abide by any decision from the judicial council.