March 13, 2007 / 6:45 AM / 13 years ago

Opposition swells to Pakistani judge's sacking

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Opposition swelled on Tuesday to the Pakistani government’s move to sack the country’s top judge as a judicial council prepared to hear the case against him behind closed doors.

Pakistani lawyers chant anti-government slogans during a protest in Karachi March 12, 2007. The Pakistani government's move to sack the country's top judge has created a constitutional crisis and undermined the independence of the judiciary, a U.S.-based human rights group said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Athar Hussain

Lawyers across the country have staged angry protests since the government decided on Friday to suspend Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the move had created a constitutional crisis and undermined the independence of the judiciary.

Chaudhary has been confined at his home in Islamabad since Friday, with police blocking most access to him, although the government denies he is under house arrest.

On Tuesday he was moved to a government guest house before being taken to the Supreme Court in the capital amid tight security. A Supreme Judicial Council was to begin a closed hearing later in the day.

President Pervez Musharraf’s government has given no details of allegations against Chaudhary but analysts said the action might be related to his efforts to make authorities account for people who disappeared after being taken into custody.

“We are demonstrating because the judiciary has been defamed by this government action,” a former law minister, Aitzaz Ahsan, told a crowd of about 200 lawyers and opposition supporters outside the Supreme Court.

Police and lawyers clashed in the eastern city of Lahore on Monday and about 25 people were hurt. The uproar has contributed to a sense of uncertainty on Pakistan’s main stock market, dealers said.

Lawyers and liberal party supporters were joined by a leader of an alliance of Islamist parties who said the government had acted unconstitutionally.

“There’s no constitution, no rule of law in the country. General Pervez Musharraf wants the supremacy of the generals, the army. That’s why he did this,” said the Islamist leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed.

“CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS”

The government said on Friday the Supreme Judicial Council would hold an inquiry into “numerous complaints and serious allegations” against Chaudhary, APP news agency reported. The state-run agency also cited “misconduct and misuse of authority”.

Human Rights Watch said the council’s hearing should be open.

“By brazenly and unlawfully dismissing, detaining and humiliating the chief justice of the Supreme Court, President Musharraf has created a constitutional crisis at the judiciary’s expense,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, a researcher for the group.

The News newspaper said that, by denying Chaudhary his right to move freely and meet whoever he wanted, the government was violating the constitution.

“The government needs to extricate itself from this ugly situation before it spirals out of control ... Any delay in repairing the damage can only convince most Pakistanis that they live in a country that has all the makings of a police state,” the paper said.

Human Rights Watch said the move to oust Chaudhary pointed to government determination to control the judiciary in the run-up to elections due late this year or early next.

Though appointed by Musharraf in 2005, Chaudhary later attempted to assert judicial independence and took up several rights cases including initiating proceedings in cases involving enforced disappearances, Human Rights Watch said.

Human rights groups say at least 400 people have disappeared since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism in 2001.

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