Pakistan Opposition Parties Rally Against Musharraf Over Judge's Firing

Thousands of Pakistani opposition activists staged Monday their biggest rallies yet against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's removal of a top judge that has left him open to accusations of entrenching military rule.

About 3,000 people gathered in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, carrying party flags and chanting "Go Musharraf go!" and "Friends of America are traitors to the nation." Hundreds of police in riot gear sat in vehicles nearby but didn't intervene as the crowd marched through a commercial district.

Thousands more attended similar rallies in Lahore, Multan and other major cities, though the overall turnout appeared modest for a nation of about 160 million people.

Musharraf has faced a public outcry since March 9, when he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on unspecified charges of abusing his authority. Lawyers and opposition groups have held dozens of protests across Pakistan, some of which have turned violent.

However, Monday's nationwide rallies were the first called jointly by the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, which groups Pakistan's main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-N, both of them led by former prime ministers living in exile.

Opposition leaders said at the weekend that police had arrested hundreds of their activists in and around Lahore to undercut the demonstration there and police initially declared the protest illegal.

Still, authorities on Monday relaxed the banning order and security forces stood off as some 2,000 people, including supporters of hardline Islamist parties, marched along the city's main street and as an effigy of Musharraf was set on fire and beaten with sticks in front of the Punjab provincial High Court.

Musharraf has insisted Chaudhry's suspension was not politically motivated and his information minister claimed Monday that agitation over what is "purely a constitutional matter" was fizzling.

"With the passage of time, the legal community will understand that there was no ulterior motive to what we have done and that everything that was done was in line with the constitution," Mohammed Ali Durrani told The Associated Press. "There's no hidden agenda."

But opposition leaders accuse Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a 1999 coup, of trying to tame the court before elections likely to trigger legal challenges to his rule.

"This is a clear signal to Musharraf that he should quit now," said Mazir Ahmad, a bearded 50-year-old protester in Lahore. "He is a usurper."

The United States, Musharraf's main international backer, and the European Union have expressed concern about the bitter standoff, which analysts say could tarnish Musharraf and his supporters ahead of parliamentary elections due within a year. Musharraf himself is expected to seek re-election as president from the outgoing legislature.

That move will likely draw legal challenges before the Supreme Court, especially if Musharraf seeks to continue also as chief of the armed forces.

Chaudhry's case is before the Supreme Judicial Council, a panel of five senior judges, which can either confirm or throw out the allegations he faces. The council is scheduled to resume hearings in Chaudhry's case on April 3.