Thousands Rally Against Pakistan's Leader

About 7,000 lawyers, journalists and opposition activists staged a sit-in protest in Pakistan, demanding President Gen. Pervez Musharraf step down for suspending a popular Supreme Court justice and clamping down on the media.

The demonstrators in the central city of Lahore shouted "Go, Musharraf, go!" while others taped their mouths shut to protest government alleged censorship.

The rally was the latest in a series in recent weeks against Musharraf, who critics say has become increasingly authoritarian as he seeks to extend his nearly eight

years in power with a new five-year presidential term scheduled to begin this fall.

Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, deposing then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The media have also been under pressure by the government since March, when Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry for alleged misconduct, triggering nationwide protests by lawyers and opposition parties.

Chaudhry has challenged his suspension before the Supreme Court, and private news channels have broadcast his rallies, showing tens of thousands of people chanting slogans against Musharraf.

Critics claim Musharraf has tried to sideline the independent-minded judge in case of any legal challenges to his bid to for a new presidential term. The government has denied any

political motive, with Musharraf saying he has evidence that Chaudhry abused his office.

A government lawyer claimed Thursday that the president was acting on a recommendation from Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to suspend Chaudhry.

The president's office had said Musharraf would make a televised address to the nation late Thursday, but arrangements for the taping were later canceled without explanation.

From the Associated Press

Musharraf Faces Political Crisis in Pakistan

Pakistani lawyers rally against President Pervez Musharraf

hide captionPakistani lawyers march and chant slogans against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf during a rally May 31, 2007, in Lahore.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf

hide captionPakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is under fire for supporting the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry

hide captionPakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is charged with misconduct and abuse of authority by President Pervez Musharraf.

Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Benazir Bhutto's Role

Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, has decided to return to Pakistan to contest elections there, despite her risk of getting arrested.

Bhutto left the country years ago to avoid graft charges. Now, she says, she wants to pressure President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for a return to civilian rule.

Bhutto tells Robert Siegel that she plans to return to Pakistan sometime between September and December, depending on political developments there.

Listen to the interview with NPR's Siegel.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto

hide captionFormer Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto could play a role in quelling protests against rival Musharraf.

Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Nawaz Sharif on Pakistan

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999. As Musharraf faces increasing pressure to step down after sacking the country's top judge, Sharif says he'd like to return.

Listen to the interview that aired NPR's Morning Edition.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

hide captionFormer Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says he would like to return to Pakistan.

Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistanis don't agree about much, but on one issue there's consensus: Their president and military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is facing his most serious political crisis since he seized power in a coup in 1999.

It is a crisis with potentially enormous ramifications for Pakistan, for its neighbors, and for the international community.

The political crisis began in March, sparked by Musharraf's support of a move from within his administration to dismiss the country's most senior judge, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, over allegations of misconduct, including nepotism.

Instead of meekly resigning, the judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, embarked on a flamboyant nationwide campaign demanding the establishment, for the first time in Pakistan's turbulent 60-year history, of a genuinely independent judiciary.

To the intense exasperation of the military government, Chaudhry began traveling from city to city accompanied by a large and noisy posse of supporters, mostly black-clad lawyers. They called for Chaudhry's reinstatement and, in some cases, for Musharraf's departure.

The judge then became the rallying point for a variety of Musharraf's opponents. Restless after seven-and-a-half years of military rule — a period during which the army's top brass has grown steadily more influential and wealthier — the country's main opposition parties eagerly leaped onto the chief justice's bandwagon.

These days, the flag-waving crowds who flock around the traveling judge include activists from the secular Pakistan People's Party, from the PML-N (the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister ousted by Musharraf's coup) and from Pakistan's religious parties.

Until recently, turnout for the judge's rallies has been relatively small, though always vocal and calculatedly photogenic.

Last weekend, however, he reportedly attracted about 50,000 people for a rally in Abbottabad, a sign that the judge might have acquired a degree of mass support.

There were also large crowds last month when the judge's cavalcade set off from Islamabad for Lahore. Many thousands turned out along the route to fete the judge, turning a journey that usually takes four hours into a 20-hour-plus marathon.

A week later, events turned nasty. Chaudhry went to Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, only to be confronted with a counter-demonstration organized by a pro-government party intent on disrupting his appearance. Violence erupted. Over two days, 48 people died in gun battles between pro-Musharraf and pro-judge activists. Chaudhry never made it beyond the airport.

Supporters of Chaudhry, who is suspended while Pakistan's Supreme Court deliberates his case, believe Musharraf's motives for getting rid of the judge have nothing to do with the misconduct allegations.

They say the judge had been raising awkward questions about "disappearances" — Pakistanis who are presumed to be detained indefinitely by the intelligence service, without access to their families or lawyers.

They also say the president's advisers were worried that petitions would be filed in Pakistan's Supreme Court challenging Musharraf's re-election plan, and that the chief justice would support the petitions.

Musharraf makes no secret of wanting to remain president while retaining the hugely powerful position of army chief of staff.

Equally controversially, he also intends to seek re-election from Pakistan's sitting national and provincial assemblies, now in their final year, instead of waiting for new elections to these bodies. Musharraf's critics say those plans are unconstitutional and undemocratic.

In the United States, nerves are jangling. Washington regards the general as an important ally in the war against rising Islamist extremism — including al-Qaida and the Taliban. It worries about any development that could make a nuclear-armed Pakistan more unstable and even more prone to militancy.

In Pakistan, the crisis has galvanized Musharraf's political opponents into action, and sparked a frenzy of speculation about his future.

Some commentators say Musharraf is on the verge of losing power. Others think he will probably stumble on, having weathered past crises, including backlash from Sept. 11, several assassination attempts, and South Asia's worst earthquake in living memory.

Some suspect he'll attempt a crackdown — he has just introduced restrictions on Pakistan's TV channels.

Others say he may try to secure his survival in office by arranging some kind of power-sharing agreement with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of arguably the country's most powerful opposition party.

The world is waiting anxiously to see what happens next. The 53-year-old Bhutto could end up playing a key role.

She is still Pakistan's most prominent civilian political figure, although her two terms in office disappointed many Pakistanis and tarnished the dazzling reputation she initially enjoyed when she became the Islamic world's first elected female leader. She says she would like to return to Pakistan before the elections, even though Musharraf has said he will not allow it. She risks being jailed on charges of corruption if she returns.

After the killings in Karachi, Bhutto ruled out the possibility of a deal with Musharraf. Many of the dead were from Bhutto's party. Musharraf's opponents blamed him for the bloodshed.

But speculation has begun to revive. The New York Times reports that Bhutto is "quietly talking through intermediaries about a power-sharing deal with the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf."

When asked about the possible deal by NPR's Robert Siegel, Bhutto said, "Right now I don't want to talk about the talks because it makes people very angry. Certainly after the events of May 12 — when 48 people were killed in the city of Karachi at the hands, many suspect, of a coalition partner of the regime — and until today, not a single person has been arrested for those 48 murders. Our supporters say we shouldn't be talking to a regime that has killed 48 people and not arrested anyone. That is what they say. And they say we shouldn't be talking to a regime that is refusing to reinstate the Chief Justice of Pakistan because it wants to weaken the judiciary with the view to rig the fourth coming elections."

If the two parties were able to work out a deal eventually, there are several conditions Bhutto might stress. Bhutto would want a guarantee of free and fair elections. She would want corruption charges against her dropped, allowing her to return freely to Pakistan. She would want Musharraf to quit as army chief of staff. She and her party might then agree not to stand in the way of his re-election as president.

Yet nothing is certain in Pakistan. The country has spent more years ruled by the military than by civilian governments. It has yet to see power transferred from one government to another according to the rules of the constitution.

And Musharraf, though weaker now, sees himself as a commando — a man who prides himself on fighting his corner until the bitter end.

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