Top Judge's Ouster Shakes Pakistan
Saturday, March 17, 2007
KABUL, March 16 -- Pakistani police fired rubber bullets at protesters, ransacked a television station and detained key opposition leaders Friday, as anger swelled over Gen. Pervez Musharraf's suspension of the nation's chief justice.
Opposition groups pledged to hold larger demonstrations against the government, and Pakistani political analysts said Musharraf faces the greatest challenge to his presidency since he took office in a bloodless coup in 1999.
"This has shaken the country. It has shaken the government," said Ayaz Amir, a columnist for the English-language newspaper Dawn. "It has all the potential of getting out of hand and turning into something bigger."
Musharraf last week suspended the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, citing unspecified abuses of authority. Since then, furor over the move has grown. Political opponents and journalists have speculated that Musharraf feared Chaudhry might try to force the president to step down as head of the army or might be planning to play a role in upcoming elections.
For much of the day Friday, thousands of protesters from across Pakistan's political spectrum jammed the area around the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, the capital. They threw rocks, called Musharraf "a dog" and chanted "Go, Musharraf, Go!" as they demanded the president's resignation.
The protesters had to break through barricades to reach the main site of the demonstration. Razor wire ringed key government buildings, and checkpoints prevented many vehicles from entering the city.
Witnesses at the scene said that police used tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges in an attempt to disperse the crowd and that they arrested numerous opposition leaders. Dozens of opposition members, as well as lawyers from across the country, had also been detained overnight in advance of the rally.
Among those arrested were Qazi Hussain Ahmad, a leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which is a coalition of far-right Islamic parties, and Rafiq Tarar, a former president of Pakistan who was detained during a rally in Lahore.
Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan defended the arrests, saying that demonstrators were blocking traffic and clashing with police.
"We have to ensure that nobody is above the law," he said. "It doesn't matter if they're political leaders. Anybody who takes the law into their own hands, they have to face the consequences."
Opposition leaders accused the government of attempting to crush democratic institutions, which have only gradually been taking hold in Pakistan in recent years.
"Today we've seen an assault on the judiciary and the media, and there's now a groundswell against the high-handedness of the regime," said Sherry Rehman, information secretary of the left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party. "This is not something that will die out."