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"Long March" participants in Rawalpindi (AFP)
Tens of thousands of protesting Pakistani lawyers and their supporters are marching toward the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, in what's been dubbed a "Long March" to demand the reinstatement of the country's chief justice and 60 other judges who were sacked last year by President Pervez Musharraf, who they want to resign.
RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique spoke to Latif Afridi, a leader of the protesting lawyers and president of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association, about the protest movement.
RFE/RL: What are your major demands? What do you want to achieve from this protest?
Latif Afridi: Our main demands are simple. We want an independent judiciary in our country and we want the reinstatement of the judges whom [President] Musharraf deposed by force [from the barrel] of a gun last year as they refused to take an oath of loyalty to a military dictator.
RFE/RL: After winning the February 18 elections, the leaders of Pakistan's new coalition promised to reinstate the deposed judges, but so far they have failed to honor their commitment. Why?
Afridi: The new democratic government twice agreed to a deadline to reinstate the judges. First they agreed to a 30-day deadline [April 30] and then to a 12-day deadline [May 12], but nothing happened. Then they said that they will reinstate the judges through a constitutional amendment in the parliament, but none of their commitments ever materialized.
This forced us to hold [lawyers] conventions throughout the country. The series of protests developed into the current "Long March" and hundreds of thousands of people are now participating in it.
RFE/RL: There were some media reports indicating that when in the capital, Islamabad, the lawyers plan to hold a sit-in until the deposed judges are reinstated. Are such reports true? What are your plans?
Afridi: When we reach Islamabad, our leadership will hold a consultation to decide for how long we should stay in Islamabad. We cannot stay in Islamabad for very long. But once we register our protest to the world and the Pakistani people then will decide what future steps we will take.
RFE/RL: Do you think that the current coalition government is afraid of your protests and have they tried to stop or undermine your movement?
Afridi: So far the government has not created any hurdles in our march towards Islamabad. In Islamabad, too, we have not heard about any hurdles. We plan to keep our protest absolutely peaceful and in a couple of days [after reaching Islamabad] we will decide which direction our protests should take.
RFE/RL: What you said earlier indicates that your main objective is just the reinstatement of the deposed judges. But in the past, some leaders of the lawyers' movement have maintained that their real objective is to ensure an independent judiciary and the reinstatement of the deposed judges is not the real issue. How do you react to such assertions?
Afridi: The reinstatement of the deposed judges will be the cornerstone of a new, independent judiciary. We would then like to build an independent and efficient judiciary from the lower courts to the level of high court and Supreme Court so that it can deliver speedy justice to our impoverished masses.
RFE/RL: Don't you think your protest will pave they way for future protests where everybody will try to come to Islamabad and force the government to accede to their demands?
Afridi: We think that the people of Pakistan need such protests. They need to understand and set a precedent that shows that people can stand up for their fair demands and make their rulers accountable.