Pakistan's Chief Justice Chaudry Challenges Ouster

Pakistan's chief justice challenged his ouster at the hands of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf before the highest court Tuesday, alleging he had been held against his will for several hours in the leader's army office.

Calm returned to much of Pakistan after weekend riots in Karachi that killed 41 people and a nationwide general strike Monday, refocusing attention on Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry's legal case challenging his suspension by Musharraf two months ago.

The Supreme Court is examining more than 20 petitions contesting the legality of the suspension for alleged misconduct, including one filed by Chaudhry himself.

Musharraf's move has been criticized that it amounted to an attack on the independence of the judiciary as he prepares to extend his nearly eight-year rule by seeking a new presidential term this fall.

With Chaudhry himself absent, his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, told the 13-judge bench that the chief justice had been summoned to Musharraf's army office in Rawalpindi on March 9 and held there against his will for several hours.

Ahsan said Chaudhry had been pressured to resign — but did not say by whom.

"He sought several times to leave. ... He was physically prevented from leaving," Ahsan said in the cavernous, marble-walled courtroom, where the public gallery was packed with reporters and lawyers. Government officials have denied the allegation that Chaudhry was held against his will.

A judicial complaints panel that assembled March 9 to consider Chaudhry's case had "no authority" to prevent Chaudhry from working because it had never asked for the judge's point of view, Ahsan said.

Chaudhry also accuses several of the judges on the panel of bias against him. The panel's work has been suspended while the court considers the petitions.

Government lawyer Sayed Sharifuddin Pirzada told the court that when the hearing resumes Wednesday, he would show that Chaudhry's petition was flawed and premature.

Meanwhile, presiding Judge Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday said the court had "taken cognizance" of the mysterious shooting death of a Supreme Court official, Syed Hammad Raza, at his Islamabad home before dawn Monday.

"Each one of us was as shocked and grieved as anyone could be grieved over the matter," Ramday said. "We are watching. This court is watching," he said.

Police blamed robbers for the killing, but several relatives of Raza claimed it was a targeted killing, because nothing had been stolen from the house.

Ahsan said Raza — who had been appointed by Chaudhry in 2005 — may have been under pressure to testify against the chief justice, but he offered no evidence to support his assertion.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has ordered a judicial inquiry into the killing and ordered authorities to do their utmost to catch those responsible, Aziz's office said.

Opponents accuse Musharraf of removing the independent-minded Chaudhry, fearing he would uphold legal challenges to the president's continued rule. Musharraf denies the move was politically motivated.

To press for Chaudhry's reinstatement, lawyers have mounted a series of growing protest rallies during hearings into the case, and he has traveled around the country to seek support.

An abortive visit to Karachi on Saturday by Chaudhry triggered violence between supporters and opponents of the government, which security forces made little effort to stop. That led to accusations that it was condoned by Musharraf.

On Monday, an opposition call for a general strike to protest the violence paralyzed cities across Pakistan.

Shops were open again Tuesday in Karachi, a port city of 15 million, and the flow of traffic on the roads appeared to be back toward normal.