Ousted chief justice urges Pakistanis to 'rise up'

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-Nov-07 | Author: David Rohde and Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

Police officers in uniform and plain clothes clash with lawyers in Multan, Pakistan on Tuesday.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: In a telephone address Tuesday to lawyers in Pakistan's capital, the ousted chief justice of the Supreme Court urged them to continue to defy the state of emergency imposed by the president, General Pervez Musharraf.

"The lawyers should convey my message to the people to rise up and restore the Constitution," the former justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, told dozens of lawyers on speakerphone at a meeting of the Islamabad Bar Association before his cellphone connection was cut. "I am under arrest now, but soon I will also join you in your struggle."

On Tuesday, the second day of protests, the police arrested 50 lawyers in the eastern city of Lahore and clashes broke out between hundreds of lawyers and Pakistani police officers in Multan, about 320 kilometers, or 200 miles, to the southwest. On Monday, in Lahore and other cities, thousands of lawyers protested, with many beaten by baton-wielding police officers and then thrown into police wagons. By the end of that day, about 2,000 people had been rounded up by the authorities, among them 500 to 700 lawyers, according to lawyers and political officials.

It was unclear how Chaudhry, who was fired Saturday and is under house arrest, was able to gain access to a cellphone. He and other lawyers said they hoped to re-create the protest campaign they carried out this spring when the lawyers mounted big rallies in major cities after Musharraf removed Chaudhry from the Supreme Court bench. Musharraf's popularity plummeted during the protests, and Chaudhry was reinstated after four months, invigorating the Supreme Court and the general's opponents.

On Saturday, citing a need to limit terrorist attacks and "preserve the democratic transition," Musharraf suspended the Constitution, dissolved the Supreme Court and the four provincial High Courts, and silenced privately owned television news channels. Many of the Supreme Court judges are, like Chaudhry, under house arrest.

But Musharraf stopped short of taking some steps characteristic of martial law, like shutting down Parliament, analysts noted.

How long the lawyers can keep up their revolt without the support of opposition political parties, which so far have been lying low, remains in question. But the leader of the biggest opposition political party, Benazir Bhutto, has pledged to lead a major protest rally Friday in Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjacent to Islamabad.

President George W. Bush and other Western officials have urged Musharraf to immediately end emergency rule and prepare for elections as planned in January. Aides to Musharraf gave conflicting signals about the election timetable. On Monday, some said the voting would proceed on schedule, but Tuesday, others said there would be delays.

"It will take some time," said Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a cabinet member close to Musharraf, The Associated Press reported. Ahmad said Musharraf wanted to hold the election in January, but "some elements want them to be delayed for a year."

Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, visited the country's election commission Tuesday and urged the election commissioner to announce elections for Jan. 15, as had been planned. In the first practical sign of displeasure at Musharraf's move, the United States said Monday that it had suspended annual defense talks with Pakistan.

Bhutto flew Tuesday from her home city, Karachi, to Islamabad, landing about 6 p.m. On Wednesday, she is to meet with other civilian political leaders, but she said she would not meet or negotiate with Musharraf.

The Musharraf government has tried to reconstitute the top courts by swearing in new judges loyal to the government. Only five have taken the oath for the 17-seat Supreme Court, and there are many gaps in the other High Courts.

In Multan, the riot police prevented 1,000 lawyers from leaving a court building Tuesday to carry out a street rally, according to Pakistani journalists. The lawyers and police officers then hurled stones at each other. In a separate clash, police officers stormed Multan's High Court and arrested at least six lawyers.

In Islamabad, several dozen lawyers protested inside the city's court complex after listening to Chaudhry's telephone call. They made no attempt to break through dozens of police who had gathered to prevent them from carrying out street protests.

In his call to lawyers, Chaudhry said, "Go to every corner of Pakistan and give the message that this is the time to sacrifice," The Associated Press reported. "Don't be afraid. God will help us, and the day will come when you'll see the Constitution supreme and no dictatorship for a long time."

Feisal Naqvi, a Lahore lawyer, and other lawyers said they believed that the battle against the government could not be won on the streets. Rather, they said, the fight should focus on undermining the newly constituted courts.

"The fundamental point is not to allow the Supreme Court and the High Courts to operate," he said. A monitoring system was being considered under which lawyers would patrol courts and urge their colleagues not to appear before the new judges.

Potential problems for Musharraf emerged on another front. On Monday, the Karachi Stock Exchange, the country's largest stock market, declined by 4.6 percent - its biggest single-day loss, according to Pakistani news reports. And Standard & Poor's revised its credit ratings outlook for Pakistan from stable to negative, citing political upheaval caused by the declaration of emergency "and its potential impact on economic growth, fiscal performance, and external vulnerability."

In random street interviews, ordinary Pakistanis expressed sweeping opposition to Musharraf's emergency declaration. Some complained that business had dropped off. Others called the declaration an obvious attempt by Musharraf to maintain his personal power and dismissed his assertion that the move was an effort to fight terrorism.

"There are weak points in the political parties," said Yasir Mehmood, a 31-year-old cellphone store owner, referring to corruption. "But one cannot deny that political parties and democracy are better than martial law."

A policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he and many other officers believed Musharraf was "not acting according to the law." But he said police officers would not dare defy orders.

"It would be good if he leaves with dignity," the officer said. "Nobody respects him anymore."

Salman Masood contributed reporting.