ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Thousands of lawyers boycotted courts across Pakistan on Thursday while police blocked former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his supporters from marching to the heavily guarded home of the deposed Supreme Court chief justice.
Riot police nearly outnumbered the hundreds of protesters, and blocked the route to the official residence in Islamabad of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry with concrete blocks, steel and barbed wire.
Chaudhry has been under house arrest since Nov. 3, when President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency and sacked most of the Supreme Court justices just before they were to rule on the validity of his re-election in October.
Musharraf has since stacked the court with loyalists, who promptly dismissed all complaints against the former general's election.
Attorneys — who have been among the most outspoken opponents of Musharraf's moves — boycotted court proceedings in several cities, staging rallies to demand an end to emergency rule, reinstatement of the dismissed judges and restoration of the constitution, said Syed Mohammed Tayyab, secretary-general of Islamabad Bar Association.
Lawyers in Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Lahore and Karachi confirmed that they refused to appear in court and hundreds of them staged protest gatherings, mostly at court premises. Several lawyers and police were injured in scuffles at a rally in the central city of Multan, witnesses said.
In Islamabad, Sharif led the marchers — who included members of his party, lawyers in black suits and a number of women carrying flowers, chanting "Finish with your show; go, Musharraf, go" — to the barricades.
He then briefly addressed them before they dispersed peacefully, defusing a potential showdown with a government that has shown no tolerance for public dissent.
Sharif vowed to continue pursuing the reinstatement of Chaudhry and other judges, saying "God willing, we will be victorious."
"I want to tell the nation that past dictators were also used to ousting prime ministers, arresting them from their houses and hanging even one of them," he said. "Now a dictator has attacked the judiciary, and if the nation today ignores these actions of a dictator, history will not forgive it."
Since returning from exile in Saudi Arabia 10 days ago, Sharif — ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup — has become the president's most vehement critic.
Meanwhile, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party of another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, were reported to be nearing agreement on a joint set of conditions for their participation in parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8.
Both parties claim the government plans to rig the vote, and have threatened a boycott unless their demands are met. They are expected to demand restoration of an independent judiciary and the constitution, and creation of a neutral caretaker government and independent election commission.
"We're optimistic that we'll reach agreement because everyone wants to pull the country out of this crisis and prevent Musharraf from rigging the elections," said Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League-N. "Despite our differences in the past, we are legitimate democratic parties while Musharraf is an illegitimate military dictator."
A boycott would undercut efforts that Musharraf — a key ally in the U.S. war on terror — says he is making to engineer a transition to democracy for Pakistan after eight years of military rule. It also would represent a major setback for the United States, which has promoted the former four-star general as a moderate leader able to stand up to Islamic extremism.
In Lahore, about 700 lawyers and activists rallied to demand the reinstatement of Chaudhry and other judges. The protesters, who marched through the city chanting anti-government slogans, later dispersed peacefully.
Musharraf has freed most of the thousands of opposition activists and members of civil society who were arrested in the immediate aftermath of Nov. 3. He also has promised to lift the emergency on Dec. 16, about three weeks before the parliamentary ballot.