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Pakistani opposition protests sacking of judge

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters rallied in towns and cites throughout the country on Monday to protest against President Pervez Musharraf’s move to sack the country’s top judge.

Supporters of an alliance of religious parties, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), chant slogans during a rally to protest the suspension of a top judge in Peshawar March 26, 2007. REUTERS/Ali Imam

The suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9 angered lawyers and the opposition, who see it as an attack on the independence of the judiciary, but Monday’s protests did not draw huge crowds and there were no reports of serious trouble.

The uproar has blown up into Musharraf’s most serious domestic political crisis since he seized power in 1999, and comes in the run-up to an expected attempt to seek another term.

But analysts say Musharraf, who is also army chief, does not appear to face any immediate threat to his rule as he has the support of the military.

Monday’s protests were called by two exiled former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who met in London last week and agreed on the rallies.

Authorities picked up hundreds of their supporters on Sunday in a bid to thwart the rallies, opposition leader said.

Nevertheless, protests went ahead in all big cities.

About 2,500 opposition activists and lawyers marched in the southwestern city of Quetta shouting “Go Musharraf go”, witnesses said.

“Like previous dictators, Musharraf has also attacked the judiciary to make it subservient,” Nafees Siddiqui, a central leader of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told the rally.

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A similar number of lawyers and political activists protested in the city of Lahore where they torched an effigy of Musharraf.

“There is neither the supremacy of the judiciary nor of parliament. This government has to go,” Naheed Khan, Bhutto’s political secretary, told Reuters at the Lahore rally.

Similar or smaller protests were held in cities including Karachi, Multan, Lahore, Peshawar and Rawalpindi.

In the days immediately after Chaudhry’s suspension, violence erupted between protesters and police but there has been no serious trouble since then.

The government has not published the accusations against Chaudhry but a newspaper said the main one appeared to be that he had allegedly used his position to help his son get a public sector job.

The move to sack Chaudhry led to suspicion Musharraf feared the independent-minded judge might not rule as the president hoped on issues such as whether he can remain army chief and the timing of the next presidential election.

Musharraf has said he was bound to refer complaints against Chaudhry to the top judicial watchdog and the action against Chaudhry should not be politicised.

He has also promised that general elections due late this year or early next will go ahead on time and he would not impose an emergency as a way out of the crisis.

The panel of judges hearing the accusations against Chaudhry is due to hold its third closed session on April 3.