ABBOTABAD, Pakistan – Tens of thousands of people gathered for the biggest rally yet against the president's suspension of Pakistan's chief justice, giving the jurist a joyous reception ahead of a speech to lawyers in an opposition stronghold.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on March 9, triggering a political crisis that has challenged the general's grip on power as he prepares to seek another five-year term later this year.
Witnesses estimated at least 50,000-60,000 people gathered along the road to Abbotabad, 30 miles north of Islamabad.
Dozens accompanied Chaudhry's convoy when it left the capital, where it defied the city's new two-month ban on gatherings of more than five people. The procession kept growing as it neared Abbotabad.
Chaudhry supporters claimed the crowd surpassed 100,000. Official figures were not immediately available.
Ahead of Chaudhry's vehicle, a crowd that included horses and camels danced to the beat of drums and chanted "Go, Musharraf, go." All roads leading to Abbotabad were decorated with banners, balloons and portraits of the judge.
"I never saw such enthusiasm among people," said Nawaz Khan, a prominent lawyer.
Pakistani news channels have shown live TV coverage of Chaudhry's rallies. But the situation Saturday was visibly different, as most stations only reported on Chaudhry's procession, showing previously recorded footage.
The government has asked news channels to reduce coverage of the top judge, the latest sign of intolerance of what it claims has been biased reporting under a policy of maximum independence for media.
Mohsin Raza, news director for the AYR news channel, said the government was exerting pressure on the coverage issue.
"It's a kind of censorship of the electronic media," he said.
One broadcaster, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Friday his network received "verbal instructions" from the government not to show live coverage of Chaudhry's rallies.
However, Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani told The Associated Press that the government believes in freedom of the press, and that it had only requested the media abide by their code of conduct.
Durrani earlier asked news channels not to play into the hands of those who want to politicize the suspension issue.
Musharraf has said he suspended Chaudhry because of alleged misconduct and his opponents were politicizing a purely legal matter. Critics accuse of him of trying to get rid of the judge in case of legal challenges to his plan to extend his nearly eight-year rule since taking power in a 1999 coup.
Riots erupted last month when authorities stopped Chaudhry from leading a demonstration in the city of Karachi, leaving more than 40 people dead.
The government said Friday it imposed a ban on gatherings of more than five people to ensure the peace and avoid any inconvenience to the public.
However, police didn't stop Chaudhry's supporters, who first gathered outside his home in an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad, then marched down a main road with him to Abbotabat, said Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer for Chaudhry.
Musharraf faces a growing political crisis for his action against Chaudhry.
Last week, some of the lawyers at a seminar attended by Chaudhry verbally abused Musharraf, blaming him for the current judicial and political crisis.
But Pakistan's top military commanders at a meeting Friday reaffirmed their loyalty to Musharraf, who has refused to give up his dual role as army chief.
Although Musharraf's political opponents have challenged his rule, there is no sign he has lost the support of his key international backer, the United States. Washington considers the Pakistani leader a crucial ally in the fight against terrorism.