Pakistani Opposition Seizes on Controversy

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 22, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 21 -- Thousands of lawyers and political activists in cities across Pakistan staged peaceful rallies Wednesday as they continued their nearly two-week-old campaign against President Pervez Musharraf's decision to suspend the nation's chief justice.

In Islamabad, the capital, demonstrators converged on the Supreme Court building, chanting, "Go, Musharraf, go!" and calling the president "Bush's dog." Although there had been violent clashes between demonstrators and police at rallies last week, officers in riot gear largely avoided confrontations in Islamabad on Wednesday, and only minor scuffles were reported elsewhere in the country.

The movement against Musharraf began among the nation's bar associations, which say the president is trying to squelch the independence of the judiciary. But political opponents waving party flags far outnumbered lawyers at Wednesday's rally in the capital. With elections due in the fall, opposition groups have seized on the controversy, with some critics saying it might be the spark they have been seeking after nearly eight years on the sidelines under Musharraf.

"We had to wait for an occasion to start the movement, and this is it," said Aftab Shahban Mirani, who was defense minister under former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. "Now this issue is on the lips of nearly everyone in the country. When that happens, it's difficult to stop the momentum."

Musharraf suspended the judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, on March 9, publicly alleging unspecified abuses of office. Since then, Musharraf has repeatedly defended his decision, accusing his opponents of distorting the situation for political gain.

Chaudhry was appointed by Musharraf, but he had exhibited an independent streak; late last year, he pressed hard for information about people who allegedly disappeared at the hands of the nation's intelligence services. He was expected to play a major role in this fall's elections, which critics say is the real reason Musharraf wants him removed from office.

"He wanted to win the election, and he did not want an independent judiciary," said Imran Khan, who gained international fame as a cricketer and now leads the relatively small Justice Movement. "So this whole thing is political."

Like many people at Wednesday's rally, Khan called on the United States to encourage the development of democracy in Pakistan and to end its steadfast support for Musharraf, who also heads the army. The State Department has asked for "restraint" on both sides in the controversy but has declined to criticize Musharraf directly, even after police raided a popular television station and attacked a crowd of lawyers in Lahore.

"They're alienating the people of this country by supporting a military dictator," Khan said.

Pakistan's opposition groups have been badly fractured and relatively powerless since Musharraf took office in a bloodless coup in October 1999. The main opposition parties are run by former prime ministers living in exile -- Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Once fierce rivals, the two have been flirting with the idea of joining forces to oppose Musharraf in the fall elections. They were meeting in London on Wednesday to discuss, among other things, how to respond to the controversy over the judge.

At the Islamabad rally, members of Bhutto's and Sharif's parties chanted slogans in support of their leaders, waved flags and jockeyed for the attention of television cameramen. Most were core party members, and organizers acknowledged that the controversy had yet to bring many ordinary Pakistanis into the streets.

A coalition of right-wing religious parties was also well represented at the rally, although according to most polls it has relatively low levels of support nationwide.

"Our leader asked us to come here, so we came," said Ameer Hamza, 35, who waved the white flag of the religious coalition. "We think Musharraf must quit his job because right now, there is no justice in our country."

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