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Pakistani police clash with lawyers over judge

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani police clashed for a second day on Saturday with lawyers protesting at government moves to sack the country’s top judge as President Pervez Musharraf said conspirators were stirring trouble.

A Pakistani lawyer throws a teargas shell clashes in Lahore March 17, 2007. Hundreds of Pakistani lawyers in business suits hurled stones at police on Saturday after officers fired teargas to disrupt a meeting at Lahore's High Court to protest moves to sack the country's top judge. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

The suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary on March 9 has outraged lawyers and united disparate opposition parties against Musharraf who looks set to seek another term late this year.

His suspension has fuelled suspicions that Musharraf feared the independent-minded judge would oppose any move by him to retain his role as army chief, which constitutionally the president should relinquish this year.

Police fired teargas and rubber bullets, detained numerous opposition activists and ransacked a television station on Friday during protests by lawyers and opposition supporters in Islamabad.

Newspapers said the disturbances had damaged the government’s credibility and the action against the judiciary and the media boded ill for upcoming elections. International rights and media groups also condemned the police action.

But Musharraf told a rally plotters trying to heap blame on him were behind the raid on the television station.

Earlier on Saturday, hundreds of lawyers were meeting in the High Court in the city of Lahore to discuss the case when police outside fired teargas and hit out with batons to stop a group of lawyers getting in, witnesses said.

Lawyers in business suits poured out of the meeting and hurled stones at police who threw them back. Police chasing stone-throwers ransacked nearby offices, witnesses said.

“It’s outrageous. I can’t understand why they are doing this,” said Syed Zulfiqar Ali Bokhari, secretary of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

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“It seems some invisible hand is trying to create chaos.”

Dozens of lawyers and policemen were hurt and police beat at least two reporters, witnesses said. Peaceful protests were held in several other cites.

Chaudhary has also taken up human rights cases and had called on authorities to account for people who disappeared after being taken into custody.

A U.S. State Department spokesman called on Friday for both sides to show restraint. The United States sees Musharraf as a vital ally in the war on terrorism.

“CONSPIRACY”

Chaudhary has refused to resign and had been confined to his home with police blocking almost all access to him. He has made two appearances before a panel of judges considering the case against him.

The panel on Friday ordered restrictions on him lifted and one of his lawyers said he was now free to meet anyone. The government denied he had ever been under house arrest.

Authorities have released no details of the accusations against Chaudhary but a state news agency cited “misconduct and misuse of authority”.

Musharraf telephoned the Geo television station on Friday to condemn the raid on its office and to apologise. Authorities earlier banned one of its talk shows. On Saturday, Musharraf said the raid was part of a conspiracy.

“There is a conspiracy going on and it has to be traced. Who is hatching this conspiracy so everything is put on me?” he told a rally, referring to the raid. “Whoever is doing this must stop it. Pakistan is moving on a road to progress.”

Musharraf, accused of acting unconstitutionally in trying to sack Chaudhary, has said he would not interfere with the judicial panel, which meets again on March 21. He also said the affair should not be politicised.

“Don’t bring politics into it and through this, hatch a conspiracy against me,” he said.

Additional reporting by Robert Birsel, Augustine Anthony and Kamran Haider

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