Riots erupt over jurist's suspension

Police crack down after Pakistani judge and Musharraf clash

March 17, 2007|By Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu | Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu,Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- For years, this nation's top judge has been a thorn in the side of President Pervez Musharraf. But just how big a thorn did not become apparent until Musharraf tried sacking the independent-minded jurist last week.

Yesterday, riot police resorted to tear gas and batons to beat back hundreds of protesters who had gathered in downtown Islamabad to show their support for suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Authorities detained scores of activists, carted away a prominent opposition leader and raided a popular private TV station that had closely covered the controversy.

The heavy crackdown capped a week of growing protest that has presented Musharraf with a difficult challenge to his rule of the past seven years. At stake, critics say, is the credibility of Pakistan's justice system and, perhaps, of Musharraf's own leadership.

The general-turned-president temporarily suspended Chaudhry from his post March 9 on charges of misconduct and abuse of authority. Details have yet to be made public.

But outrage quickly built up over what some consider a blatant ploy to get rid of a judge whose rulings had embarrassed the government and to ensure a quiescent judiciary ahead of elections later this year. There is speculation that the Supreme Court, under Chaudhry, might not look favorably on an attempt by Musharraf to seek re-election yet hang on to his post as military chief.

Chaudhry had also angered Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies by insisting that they answer allegations of having detained more than 100 people listed as missing.

"More often than not, the judges [in Pakistan] have been rather pliable," said Teresita Schaffer, an expert on South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "And of course this guy turned out to be less pliable than the government wanted, and the government went after him."

Although Pakistani leaders have a history of using the judiciary for their own ends, ousting Chaudhry prompted lawyers and other activists to take to the streets, not just in the capital but in other cities such as Lahore. Chaudhry has refused to resign, calling the charges against him a farce.

Analysts say the strength of public opposition to Chaudhry's removal caught Musharraf by surprise, and it continued to grow as reports came in of Chaudhry's being put under virtual house arrest and denied access to his lawyers.

Yesterday, news media broadcast scenes of police violently dispersing the protesters assembled at the Supreme Court in downtown Islamabad, where Chaudhry had gone to defend himself in a hearing. Afterward, there were signs that Musharraf was beginning to backpedal.

A Supreme Court panel ordered that restrictions on Chaudhry's movement be lifted. The court also acknowledged Chaudhry's complaint of being manhandled by police and ordered the officers to explain their actions.

Musharraf, in a live telephone interview given to the private Geo television station, apologized for a police raid on the network, which aired footage of security forces smashing their way in and destroying property. The station had been forced Thursday night to yank one of its popular news shows, apparently because of its coverage of the crisis over Chaudhry's dismissal.

"It should not have happened, and I condemn it," the Associated Press quoted Musharraf as saying during the phone interview in reference to the raid. He added that the "culprits responsible for it must be identified and action against them must be taken today."

The Pakistani president also said earlier this week that he would respect the decision of the judges' tribunal on Chaudhry, leaving the door open for the chief justice's reinstatement.

Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times

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