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Pakistan's Lawyers Protest Justice's Suspension

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This weekend, the president of Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, finds himself in the midst of a constitutional crisis. It started when President Pervez Musharraf suspended the country's chief justice earlier this month. Friday and Saturday, demonstrators poured into the streets of several Pakistani cities, including Lahur.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

LYDEN: Yesterday the nation's lawyers demonstrated in their business suits and ended up clashing with police. Security forces also raided a TV station that had been reporting on the controversy.

Graham Usher is a journalist based in Islamabad, and he joins me now. Graham Usher, please tell us about Pakistan's chief justice. Why did President Musharraf suspend him?

Mr. GRAHAM USHER (Journalist): Well, the chief justice is Iftikhar Chaudry, and the crisis began about a week ago, when President Musharraf summoned Chaudry to his offices in Ralalpindi. And basically he said that there had been a number of unspecified charges laid against him, and he advised the chief justice to resign. The chief justice refused to do so, and then Musharraf basically rendered him non-functional. In other words, removed him from office.

LYDEN: Now, I gather that President Musharraf had expected that Chaudry would accede to his demands that he resign and he showed some independence. Is there in fact an independent judiciary in Pakistan?

USHER: Well, historically no. Basically, the judiciary in Pakistan has always proved pretty docile to the military power or the army in Pakistan. It has often been rolled out to justify military coups rather than to oppose them. This is why I think Chaudry's actions have been so surprising. He was appointed chief justice in 2005, and since then he has become an ever-bigger thorn in the side of the military establishment.

Perhaps, his most important move, and the one that has generated most support among Pakistanis has been his stand on the so-called disappeared. Now, these are Pakistanis that have been picked up, rendered incommunicado by the Pakistan intelligence forces, ostensibly as part of the war against terror but actually because they are often domestic critics of Musharraf's regime.

In December, the chief justice ruled that the state must give up a number of these people who have disappeared, and 25 were given up, which basically confirmed the perception of many people here that they had been illegally detained by the intelligence agencies.

LYDEN: Who are the political forces that are marching here? It sounds like these protests are widening.

Mr. USHER: They are widening. Basically what is unique about the protests behind Chowdry is that they have united all streams of Pakistani political opinion. You've got secular forces like Pakistan People's Party. You've also got Islamic parties, and you've got various mainstream parties like that of the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

In other words, Chowdry has managed to unite Pakistan political society behind him, and the agenda of the political parties, at least some of them, is quite clear. They want to turn this confrontation into the beginnings of a movement that will lead to free and fair elections in Pakistan and remove Musharraf from the position of leadership in Pakistan.

LYDEN: And these elections are supposed to take place when?

Mr. USHER: They're meant to take place this year, and many people believe it is the election that has been the trigger for Musharraf acting to remove Chowdry. Chowdry has gone on record as saying that in his view it is unconstitutional for Musharraf to remain both chief of staff of the army and president of the country, and that's why many people believe he was removed.

LYDEN: How has President Musharraf responded as the tension has escalated?

Mr. USHER: Well, he, I think, didn't anticipate the repercussions of this, and I think in the last few days he has backed off. He went on-air and apologized publicly to the Pakistani people for the raid by his police force on the TV studio. He condemned this and said it was a deplorable act.

He has also said that he will accept any judgment coming from the supreme court about the future of the chief justice. But I think the problem for Musharraf now is that he is in a no-win situation. If the supreme court rules to remove the chief justice, it will be seen as acting at the behest of the executive, and it will lose all kind of credibility.

If it acts to reinstate Chowdry, then we know that Chowdry is totally opposed to his ongoing role as army chief of staff and as president. So at the moment it is really difficult to see how Musharraf can get out of a crisis that is almost entirely of his own making.

LYDEN: Obviously this is a very serious crisis for the president.

Mr. USHER: Yes, it is a really serious crisis. I think most commentators in Pakistan are basically saying they regard this as the most serious political crisis Musharraf has faced in seven years of military rule.

LYDEN: Graham Usher, thank you very much. Graham Usher is a freelance journalist in Islamabad. Thanks again.

Mr. USHER: Thank you.

LYDEN: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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