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Pakistan Political Crisis Worsens With Rallies

Monday, 15 February 2010 10:47 AM

ISLAMABAD — Hundreds of lawyers joined rallies across Pakistan on Monday denouncing President Asif Ali Zardari after he clashed with the Supreme Court in a fresh crisis for the insurgency-hit nation.

A rift opened on Saturday between the fragile government and influential judiciary when Zardari appointed two senior judges but the Supreme Court suspended the appointments, saying they appeared to violate the constitution.

The showdown threatens Zardari's Western-backed government at a time of mounting US pressure on the country to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants along its border with Afghanistan.

Lawyers on Monday boycotted courts and protested in the capital Islamabad and the cities of Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta, following a strike call by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA).

In the second-biggest city Lahore, about 300 lawyers in smart suits marched to the Punjab assembly building, where they burnt tyres and chanted, "Go, Zardari, Go!", lawyers' representatives and witnesses said.

Most of the approximately 10,000 lawyers based in Karachi -- Pakistan's largest city and financial capital -- did not attend court proceedings.

"We are protesting for an independent judiciary and supremacy of democracy," lawyers' leader Rashid Razvi said. "All the lawyers are united for one cause, which is to make Pakistan a truly democratic country."

About 50 pro-Zardari lawyers also gathered in the city, with one of their leaders Qazi Bashir charging that "hidden hands are conspiring against the democratic system of Pakistan."

Wearing their trademark black jackets and punching their fists in the air, about 100 lawyers also marched under tight security from the Supreme Court to parliament chanting: "We stand by the judiciary."

Zardari on Saturday elevated Lahore's top judge Khawaja Sharif to the Supreme Court and named Saqib Nisar to replace him.

The Supreme Court suspended the decision within hours, saying Zardari had broken with protocol by failing to consult Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry on Sharif's appointment.

The court summoned the attorney general to appear Thursday and will rule on whether Zardari's actions violated the constitution. SCBA president Qazi Anwar said the lawyers planned to hold protests until the hearing.

Analysts say Zardari's eligibility as president could be challenged if he is found in violation of the constitution, and suggest that a U-turn on the appointments is his only way out of the crisis.

"I think the issue has the potential to be resolved but all would depend on how political personalities and parties act to cope with the new situation," said retired senior judge Wajeehuddin Ahmad.

Tensions between the government and judiciary have simmered since Zardari was elected in 2008 and dithered over a promise to reinstate Chaudhry, who was sacked in 2007 by then military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari finally reinstated the independent-minded Chaudhry last March on the eve of a planned mass protest in Islamabad, led by campaigning lawyers who have become a thorn in the government's side.

On December 16, the Supreme Court abolished a decree protecting Zardari and other government figures from prosecution, meaning his immunity and eligibility for office could both potentially be challenged.

Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party won elections in February 2008 that ended years of military rule, but his approval ratings have plummeted as economic woes, corruption scandals and Taliban violence grip the nation.

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.

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ISLAMABAD — Hundreds of lawyers joined rallies across Pakistan on Monday denouncing President Asif Ali Zardari after he clashed with the Supreme Court in a fresh crisis for the insurgency-hit nation.
Monday, 15 February 2010 10:47 AM
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