Pakistani Lawyers Battle With Police
Sunday, March 18, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 17 -- Pakistani police clashed with protesters for a second straight day Saturday over a decision by the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to suspend the country's chief justice.
The latest round of protests came in the eastern city of Lahore, the scene of demonstrations earlier this week. On Saturday, police lobbed tear gas canisters at lawyers in business suits who responded by throwing rocks, according to witness accounts and television footage.
Rashed Rahman, executive editor of the Post newspaper in Lahore, said that about 100 lawyers were injured when police charged them with batons. He said police later ransacked about two dozen offices belonging to the protesters.
"The police apparently had orders to stop the protests at any cost, and they came out swinging," he said. "The level of violence has clearly escalated."
Unrest has grown quickly in Pakistan since March 9, when Musharraf suspended the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, citing unspecified abuses of power. Chaudhry had been expected to rule on several key cases this year, including the timing of upcoming elections and on whether Musharraf can retain his role as head of the army while also serving as president.
Lawyers, journalists and political opponents have expressed dismay over the suspension, saying they fear the move was meant to crush the country's fledgling democratic institutions. Political analysts say the uproar presents Musharraf with the largest challenge to his authority since he came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
The Lahore protests on Saturday followed a clash in Islamabad on Friday in which police fired rubber bullets into crowds, detained key opposition leaders and stormed the offices of Geo TV, Pakistan's most popular independent network.
The government has generally defended its reaction to the protests as the only way to maintain law and order. But Musharraf apologized for the raid on Geo TV in an interview with the station and indicated that the action had been executed without his approval. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz also visited Geo TV's studios Saturday to express his regret, and the government fired 15 officers involved in the raid.
But Hamid Mir, the station's bureau chief in Islamabad, said that was insufficient.
"They wanted to destroy this newsroom," Mir said Saturday afternoon, his words punctuated by frequent coughs, the result, he said, of inhaling large amounts of tear gas Friday. "They were trying to send a message to the whole media by attacking Geo TV."
The station was broadcasting live images of the protest Friday afternoon when it was attacked. Journalists filming from the roof reported that police fired rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to knock out their cameras. Video footage of the raid showed police smashing in windows and doors inside the building. Broken glass lined the lobby floors Saturday.
Mir said he was encouraged that the media did not appear to be giving in to what he described as government intimidation tactics. "This is the first time the media is showing a lot of resistance," he said.
An editorial published Saturday in the News, an English-language paper, said, "March 16, 2007, will go down as a black day in the history of this country as far as press and media freedom is concerned."
Despite the rancor, the streets of Islamabad had largely returned to calm Saturday. A coalition of Islamic parties known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal protested peacefully just before dusk. Hundreds of supporters turned out as coalition leaders called for Musharraf's resignation and the release of party members detained Friday.
"President Bush is against Islam, and Musharraf is a brother of Bush. Now Musharraf has moved against journalists and the judiciary, too," said Ibrahim Khan, a coalition leader. "He doesn't have any right to continue to serve as the president of Pakistan."
Opposition parties said they will stage more protests in the coming week.