Pakistan's lawyers demand return of ousted judges

Up to 200,000 march through Islamabad in protest at the coalition government's refusal immediately to reinstate justices sacked by Musharraf
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The Independent Online

They came from the four corners of the country and descended on Islamabad – strident, outspoken and in numbers not seen before in the capital, where they voiced their demand for the restoration of Pakistan's ousted judges.

The extraordinary "long march" of Pakistan's lawyers and human rights activists reached a finale in the early hours yesterday in a locked-down Islamabad, where up to 200,000 marchers were addressed by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who suggested that his long-term opponent President Pervez Musharraf could even be hanged. "We asked you to quit with honour after the election but you didn't," Mr Sharif, who was ousted by Mr Musharraf in 1999 coup, told the crowd that chanted "Hang Musharraf". "Now people have given a new judgment for you. These blood-sucking dictators must be held accountable."

Chief among the demands of the marchers – most wearing lawyers' garb of black suits, black ties and white shirts – was the immediate restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the former chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court who was ousted by Mr Musharraf last year when he and other judges refused to approve his imposition of a state of emergency.

Much has changed in Pakistan since then. Following elections in February, a new coalition government is being led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated last December. Mr Musharraf, having stood down as army chief, appears isolated and greatly weakened. Even the once-unquestioning support of the US can no longer be guaranteed.

What has not changed, however, is the controversy that flies around Mr Chaudhry. While the PPP, led by Ms Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, says it wants to restore the judges as part of a constitutional package, their partners in government, Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), insist they be reinstated immediately. This difference of opinion lies at the heart of a faultline running through the coalition and remains at the centre of the country's unfinished political business. It has also led to allegations that Mr Zardari would rather preserve Mr Musharraf than force him out. In short, a political landscape that includes Mr Musharraf, Mr Zardari, Mr Sharif and Mr Chaudhry is too crowded to work.

"We are marching because there is a conspiracy being hatched by Musharraf, Bush and Zardari. They don't want Iftikhar Chaudhry to return as chief justice," said the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, who heads the Movement for Justice party. "They don't want an independent judge who derives his power and legitimacy from the people of Pakistan."

The focus of the lawyers' movement has shifted slightly since they first took to the streets more than a year ago, when Mr Chaudhry was first fired by Mr Musharraf, only to be later reinstated by his own court. Then they seemed to be pursuing lofty ideals such as constitutionalism and the supremacy of the rule of law. During this show of strength, which began in Karachi six days ago and crawled up through the politically crucial province of Punjab to finish outside the parliament and presidential buildings in Islamabad, the rhetoric became rawer and more political.

The lawyers' leaders are seeking to apply pressure on Mr Zardari and the PPP, fearful that even if Mr Musharraf were to quit, the judges may not be reinstated. "Musharraf is finished," said Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer and former PPP minister. "He's like a battered car after a bad accident. The wheels have rolled a hundred yards away. The steering wheel has been flung on to the back seat. There are no lights. All that's working is the radio."

Mr Zardari, meanwhile, issued a lukewarm statement claiming that the march "shows the flourishing of democracy under the government of the PPP".

What none of this rhetoric – nor indeed the marching – tackles, however, are the very real economic problems that Pakistan is facing. Soaring food prices have led to riots in some parts of the country, and there is continued concern about the threat from militants, despite efforts by the new government to broker a peace deal with extremists operating in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.