Lawyers Press Musharraf With Protests

Lawyers in Lahore rally against the ouster of Pakistan's chief justice. Ahead of a protest today in Islamabad, organizers called for a nationwide strike.
Lawyers in Lahore rally against the ouster of Pakistan's chief justice. Ahead of a protest today in Islamabad, organizers called for a nationwide strike. (By K.m. Chaudary -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 20 -- When the police broke into the offices of some of this city's best-known lawyers last week, they didn't hold back. They smashed through doors and windows, tossed computers, ransacked files and beat anyone standing in their way with iron-tipped batons.

"We couldn't even see them because of the tear gas, but we could hear the cries of our lawyers," said Khurram Latif Khosa, a counselor who was in the courtyard below.

To Khosa, the raid was a clear message from Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf: Don't cross me. But Khosa, like lawyers across this country, is failing to heed it.

In a controversy that has gripped Pakistan and poses perhaps the most serious challenge yet to Musharraf's leadership, the nation's executive and judiciary are clashing over the president's decision nearly two weeks ago to suspend the Supreme Court chief justice. Lawyers in black suits have staged almost daily protests since, as the president's political opponents joined in. The police have responded with several raids, including one on the nation's most popular television station. A major protest is expected Wednesday in the capital, Islamabad, with organizers calling for a nationwide strike.

To the lawyers and other Musharraf critics, the protests are about far more than a decision to suspend a judge. The larger question, they say, is whether Pakistan will be governed by the rule of law, or by one-man rule.

"People are starting to deeply resent this idea that he is the only one who knows what is right for Pakistan. Are the rest of us 160 million bloody idiots?" said Ejaz Haider, news editor of the Friday Times newspaper.

Musharraf, a U.S. ally who came to power nearly eight years ago in a bloodless coup, has defended the suspension, saying there were serious allegations against the judge and he was obligated to refer them to a special council that will rule on the matter. So far, the exact allegations have not been made public.

As for the behavior of the police, the president has tried to distance himself, and even alleged there is "a conspiracy" within his government to embarrass him. Musharraf also denied accusations that he is trying to manufacture an emergency so he can postpone elections this fall.

"We will go forward on the course, which is elections this year when the five-year tenure of assemblies is completed. I am firmly resolved to do that and I will do it," he said in an interview Monday with Geo television, the private Pakistani network raided by police only three days earlier.

Critics are unconvinced. The suspension, they say, is part of an effort by an autocratic president to snuff out fledgling democratic institutions that challenge his authority.

"This is an attack on the judiciary as an institution. Tomorrow, other institutions might be victims of the attack," said Ahsan Bhoon, president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association. "If the dictator is not stopped, there will be anarchy. There will be civil war."

Pakistani legal experts say Musharraf was within his rights in referring allegations against the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, to a special council for review. But many say he erred in suspending Chaudhry before the council ruled on the allegations. On Tuesday, one of Pakistan's three deputy attorneys general resigned, saying the crisis had made it "very difficult" for him to perform his duties, the Reuters news agency reported.

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