Thousands Rally Against Pakistan's Musharraf
By Griff Witte
Washington Post, June 2, 2007
HARIPUR, Pakistan, June 2 -- Tens of thousands of people took to the streets Saturday in one of the strongest displays of opposition yet to President Pervez Musharraf, even as the government cracked down on the media in an attempt to control a burgeoning crisis.
The figure at the center of the movement against Musharraf -- the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry -- was mobbed by supporters along the route from the capital, Islamabad, to the northern city of Abbotabad, where he gave a speech late Saturday night. Hundreds of cars and trucks escorted the judge, and he was welcomed in each town he visited with boisterous cheers and pounding drums.
Musharraf suspended Chaudhry nearly three months ago, triggering a movement that began with a call for greater independence of the judiciary but has morphed into a full-fledged campaign for an end to military rule and the restoration of democracy.
"There is no other option left for Musharraf except to hold free and fair elections," said Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party, a major opposition group. "These are not rent-a-crowds. These are people who have come out on their own to demonstrate and to demand an end to military rule."
The battle lines have hardened in recent days, with opponents growing more strident in their criticism of Musharraf and the army he leads. The government, meanwhile, has pushed back by banning demonstrations in the capital and effectively prohibiting television stations from broadcasting live coverage of opposition rallies.
Saturday's demonstrations received scant coverage on many television networks. Journalists at other stations reported that the government had taken them off the air in large parts of the country.
"They're not only threatening, they're implementing the threat," said Talat Hussain, director of news and current affairs for the independent Aaj Television.
Hussain said the station had refused to accede to government demands that it not broadcast certain programs deemed overly critical of the government.
Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani denied that the government was interfering with Aaj's broadcast and blamed any transmission problems on cable companies. Hussain said the government is pressuring the companies to block stations that report critically.
Musharraf, considered a crucial U.S. ally, has previously chastised the Pakistani media for paying too much attention to opposition protests. Earlier this week, the military's top commanders also weighed in, issuing a statement condemning the "malicious campaign" against the government.
Musharraf has ruled Pakistan since 1999, when a military-led coup toppled the democratically elected civilian prime minister. The country is due for elections later this year, but Musharraf has said he wants the outgoing parliament to give him another five-year term before the public votes. He has also indicated he is reluctant to shed his role as head of the army, as the constitution requires.
Chaudhry was expected to rule later this year on several cases that could derail Musharraf's plans. The government has said the chief justice was suspended because he abused his office, but critics charge Musharraf wanted a more pliant judge leading the courts.
Kala Khan, a hospital aide, said he had not even heard of Chaudhry before Musharraf suspended him. But Khan was on the road to Abbotabad in nearly 100-degree heat to cheer the judge on. "The judiciary must be restored," said Khan, 44. "There must not be pressure from the army on the judiciary. They must be separate."