Pakistani lawyers' anti-Musharraf march hits Islamabad

Pakistani lawyers' anti-Musharraf march hits Islamabad
AFP, June 13, 2008

ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Tens of thousands of Pakistani lawyers and activists streamed into Islamabad on Friday after a cross-country "long march" to demand the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf.

Protesters waved colourful flags from the tops of buses and chanted slogans against the US-backed Musharraf as an ever-growing caravan comprising hundreds of vehicles completed a 24-hour journey from the eastern city of Lahore.

Lawyers have led opposition to Musharraf since he fired judges, including chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, under emergency rule in November, and vow to stage a sit-in outside parliament until the government restores him.

Police said around 30,000 people had gathered, including protesters outside the parliament building in the capital as well as those in the cavalcade. Protest organisers said the figure was 50,000.

Security was heavy in Islamabad and the capital's twin city Rawalpindi on Friday afternoon after completing the 256-kilometre (160-mile) journey from Lahore, the culmination of a nationwide journey that began on Monday.

"We received a big ovation en route but the welcome in Rawalpindi crossed all limits. I am overwhelmed with emotions," said protest leader Aitzaz Ahsan, a key Chaudhry aide.

Ahsan, the chief of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a former minister, told AFP that "parliament must now respect the sentiments of people, the people have spoken and they want the restoration of the judges."

Around 6,000 paramilitary troops and police were deployed in Islamabad ahead of the arrival of the lawyers. Military helicopters flew low over the protesters.

Authorities used barbed wire and shipping containers to block the parliament building in the capital and stationed armoured personnel vehicles at several points.

"I have not slept since Thursday but do not feel tired. I am absolutely ecstatic at the support we received throughout the journey," lawyer Khawar Ali, who was travelling with the motorcade, told AFP.

Musharraf imposed a state of emergency and sacked Chaudhry and around 60 other judges on November 3 when it appeared they would overturn his re-election as president the previous month. He also tried to fire Chaudhry earlier in the year.

The new coalition government led by the parties of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif -- which defeated Musharraf's allies in elections in February -- has vowed to restore the judges.

But it has been hobbled so far by disagreements over the mechanics, since bringing back Chaudhry could both lead to a standoff with Musharraf and also threaten an amnesty given to Bhutto's husband on graft charges.

Sharif pulled his party's ministers from the cabinet in May over the issue. Many of Friday's protesters waved the flags of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, a day after Sharif addressed the marchers in Lahore and said he fully supported the lawyers' campaign.

The government has announced several steps in recent days that indicate the restoration of the judges was imminent, including a decision to increase the size of the Supreme Court from 16 to 29.

It has also decided to pay seven months' salaries to all those deposed by Musharraf, a government spokesman told AFP.

Top interior ministry official Rehman Malik told reporters the government would not block the march and authorities have a "sufficient" number of security forces deployed to protect the capital.


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