Lawyers take to the streets as top judge is forced to stand down

Lawyers in Pakistan have clashed with police over a decision by the country’s president to sack the country’s top judge.

In what has been widely interpreted as an attack on judicial independence, Pakistan’s president General Pervez Musharraf made Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ‘non-functional’ on 9 March.

Summoned to Army House, Musharraf’s residence in Rawalpindi, Chaudhry was advised to resign. When he refused he was suspended by a newly convened group of five fellow Supreme Court judges.

Chaudhry has since been confined to his home. The charges against him, which were heard by judges behind closed doors on 13 March, are believed to include misconduct and abuse of office.

The house arrest has precipitated a wave of sympathy for the judge and antipathy towards Musharraf. In Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and elsewhere, lawyers have boycotted the courts and clashed with baton-wielding police outside them.

Commentators have speculated that the protests pose a real threat to the general’s position if Pakistan’s exiled civilian leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif bring out their supporters to join the lawyers on the street.

The protest comes amid wider controversy, with Musharraf declaring his intent to be re-elected as president by the current parliament. But as the opposition reads the constitution, the election should be made by the next legislature following elections in November.

Chaudhry was appointed two years ago by Musharraf and has been a stalwart supporter of the rule of law since. His actions include having launched inquiries into the disappearance of suspected insurgents in the Balochistan province; hearing petitions against inflation; outlawing child marriage; and stopping the privatisation of a major steel company because of irregularities in the bidding process.