Protests Target Musharraf's Plan to Remake Court

Lawyers in Pakistan led demonstrations today in protest of Gen. Pervez Musharraf's attempts to sack the country's chief justice of the Supreme Court. The protests increasingly include political opponents of Musharraf and Pakistan's Islamist fundamentalists.

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There have been more demonstrations in Pakistan today over General Pervez Musharraf's attempts to fire the country's chief justice of the Supreme Court. The protests are led by Pakistan's lawyers, although opposition political parties are increasingly taking part. The lawyers say their actions are about a fundamental principle of governance, and that they're standing up for the independence of Pakistan's judiciary.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the lawyers believe there are other crucial issues at stake as well.

PHILIP REEVES: Kanti Anwar(ph) is 66 years old, but he looks older. When he tells his story, you'll understand why. He says, over the years, he's fought one battle over democratic rights after another with Pakistani military leaders. As a result, he's been jailed three times. Yet now he's involved in another scrap, a campaign to bring an end to compromise and corruption in Pakistan's legal system and establish a truly independent judiciary.

Mr. KANTI ANWAR (Pakistani Lawyer): That is what we are now struggling for. Let's revive the institution of judiciary. We don't have (unintelligible). It's a shocking shame for us. For everyone, let's aid a new chapter.

REEVES: Anwar is one of the lawyers defending Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Chaudhry was suspended last month pending the outcome of the judicial hearing into allegations of improper conduct including nepotism. Many Pakistanis see the judge's suspension as a clumsy attempt by Musharraf to get rid of a judge with a reputation for being independently minded. They think Musharraf's advisers were worried the judge might support legal moves to challenge Musharraf's plans to get reelected as president later this year without giving up his other job as army chief of staff.

Chaudhry supported Musharraf in the past, but that friendship ended when a judge refused the general's request for him to step down. Since then, a broad range of Musharraf's opponents have rallied around him. When the judge visited the provincial city of Saka the other day, he was greeted like a hero. Anwar Kanti(ph) was there.

Mr. ANWAR: Now the high court building from the airport is only at 10 kilometers. It took us three and a half hours. Thousands of people are (unintelligible). They just wanted to have a glimpse of the chief of justice. The man were there say no.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

REEVES: It's mid-morning at the high court of Peshawar, Pakistan's wild west frontier city and the gateway to the Khyber Pass. Dozens of lawyers are sitting around drinking tea and gossiping. They're on strike so the courts are closed, just as they have been much of the time since the chief justice was suspended last month.

Sitting in a circle under an awning outside door there's a group of lawyers wearing garlands of flowers given to them by supporters. Above their heads flutters a banner declaring their on hunger strike, though they admit this is a token gesture. Pretty soon they're cracking open packs of apple juice and running through their protest slogans.

Unidentified Group: Go Musharraf, go. Go Musharraf, go.

REEVES: Among them is Abdul Latif Afridi(ph), president of the Peshawar Bar Association. Afridi believes that chief justice dispute has wide implications from Pakistan.

Mr. ABDUL LATIF AFRIDI (President, Peshawar Bar Association): Unless we protect the judiciary, the judiciary would be exposed to so many dangers, including the dangers from the fundamentalists and extremists.

REEVES: Afridi is among many Pakistanis alarmed by the rise of religious fundamentalism, and by efforts by hard-line Islamists to impose their own laws. He argues that to counter this, Pakistan needs a robust and an independent judiciary. He says the extremists have been taking over surrounding districts and are trying to enforce their rules inside Peshawar itself.

Mr. AFRIDI: They have blasted some shops within Peshawar. This Talibanization in this fashion, we have the problem in every district.

Ms. MUSHARA HILALIM(ph) (Lawyer, Peshawar High Court): It is very, very difficult to be a lawyer, number one. A female lawyer, number two. And I had a very tough time.

REEVES: Mushara Hilalim is one of only three women lawyers at Peshawar's high court. She has first-hand experience of the extremists.

Ms. HILALIM: In the beginning, I was threatened so many times.

REEVES: Threatened with what?

Ms. HILALIM: I was once threatened that we will kidnap you.

REEVES: Hilalim believes if Pakistan's lawyers failed in that campaign to get the chief justice reinstated, the judiciary will be weakened. Not everyone thinks that way, though. There are those who argue that no matter what the outcome, Pakistan's protesting lawyers are striking a blow for justice, among them, Abdul Latif Afridi.

Mr. AFRIDI: That judiciary will not be dealt with in this manner again. So even if this round of struggle we don't succeed, the consequences will not be negative.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Peshawar.

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