Pakistani Lawyers Protest Dismissal of Chief Judge

Pakistani lawyers have held angry demonstrations throughout the country to protest President Pervez Musharraf's removal of the Supreme Court's chief justice. As VOA's Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad, the judge's supporters accuse the president of trying to silence one of the government's toughest critics.

Despite hard rain and cold weather, scores of lawyers led a mass rally outside Islamabad's main courthouse Monday to protest the president's decision.

Police in the eastern city of Lahore reportedly beat and seriously injured several lawyers there after breaking up a similar protest Monday morning.

The growing conflict stems from President Pervez Musharraf's controversial move on Friday to suspend the country's chief judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudry.

The government has not released any specific evidence against the judge, but the charge is thought to revolve around alleged financial improprieties.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the matter had been submitted to the country's Supreme Judicial Council, which will decide the case.

He says whatever actions have been taken against the judge are entirely constitutional and in keeping with the country's "rule of law."

Further comment, he says, will have to wait until after the judicial council has rendered its verdict.

Chaudry, who became chief justice in 2005, is also remaining uncharacteristically silent, but whether that is voluntary is not known. Police have been posted outside the judge's residence, and his phone lines have been out of service.

Chaudry has issued a series of major rulings against President Musharraf's government in the past year. Last June, he overturned the government's proposed sale of a state-owned steel plant that would have netted an estimated 300-million dollars. A second ruling voided the sale of public parkland in the capital to a private company for commercial use.

In recent weeks, the chief justice has pressed for information regarding the whereabouts of more than 140 people missing for up to three years, and allegedly being held by the country's powerful intelligence agencies.

Chaudry's supporters accuse President Musharraf of targeting Chaudry to prevent further investigation into the detentions.

Lawyer Latif Khosa, one of those supporters, says Chaudry is the victim of an increasingly authoritarian government.

"I think they want to give a message to the independent judiciary that they should not go beyond the interest of the government," he said. "It's very unfortunate. This was brewing up and it's bad for democracy and it's bad for the rule of governance."

The Supreme Judicial Council is due to begin reviewing the case Tuesday, with the proceedings expected to take several weeks. Chaudry is reported to be pushing for an open trial.