Ousted Chief Justice Speaks Out in Pakistan
Thursday, March 29, 2007
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, March 28 -- The nation's suspended chief justice received a hero's welcome from some 2,000 lawyers Wednesday as he gave his first address since President Pervez Musharraf removed him from the bench nearly three weeks ago.
The Supreme Court judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, was showered with rose petals and greeted with boisterous chants of "Go, Musharraf, go!" by supporters who have rallied to Chaudhry's side and want Pakistan's president to resign.
The clash between Musharraf and Chaudhry has riveted the nation since the judge was suspended on March 9, and many here feel it represents the most serious domestic challenge to Musharraf since he came to power in a military coup eight years ago.
Critics say the decision to suspend Chaudhry was an attempt by Musharraf to crush the judiciary ahead of elections planned for later this year. The government has said Chaudhry misused his office, and Musharraf has accused opponents of exploiting the controversy for political gain.
On Tuesday, the president asked the nation for calm while a special panel reviews Chaudhry's suspension.
In his speech Wednesday, the judge was careful not to refer directly to the case against him. The closest he came was to speak broadly about the importance of maintaining an independent judiciary.
"A civilized society is unthinkable in the absence of a free, fair and impartial system for the administration of justice," he said.
Other speakers repeatedly lauded Chaudhry, 58, for standing up to Musharraf, who also heads Pakistan's army.
"If the 9th of March will go down in history as a day of infamy, it will also go down in the annals of history as a day of courage," said Munir Malik, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, noting that it was the first time "a chief justice has looked an army chief of staff in the eye and refused to resign."
The speech was hosted by the bar association in Rawalpindi, the army's home city. Chaudhry arrived in a procession of lawyers in suits who waved black flags of protest and displayed posters of the nation's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who also was a lawyer.
At demonstrations nationwide since the controversy erupted, political parties have displayed their flags and shouted slogans for their leaders. But political symbols were banned from Wednesday's event, part of an effort by organizers to show that anger over the suspension transcends political affiliation.
Chaudhry was appointed by Musharraf, but he had lately displayed an independent streak by forcing the government to reveal information about dozens of people who have disappeared in recent years, allegedly at the hands of the nation's security services.
The special judicial council that is hearing the case against Chaudhry is scheduled to resume its work next week.