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Pakistan: Lawyers' 'Long March' Heads Toward Islamabad

Deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry (center) marches with lawyers (AFP) Hundreds of Pakistani lawyers and activists are marching toward the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, demanding the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf and the restoration of the country’s chief justice and 60 other judges sacked by the president.

Lawyers from all over the country chanted "Go, Musharraf, go!" as they began convening in the southern city of Sukkur on June 10. In the scorching heat, the lawyers then moved toward Multan in eastern Punjab Province, and are expected to reach Lahore on June 11.

They will then ride in a huge motorcade toward Islamabad, where tens of thousands of lawyers and political and civil society activists plan to hold a huge rally in front of the national parliament on June 13.

The black-suited lawyers and their supporters seek the restoration of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and 60 other judges, who were dismissed by Musharraf after he declared emergency rule on November 3 last year.

The protest, dubbed the "Long March," represents one of the biggest challenges yet to Pakistan’s new coalition government.

In Islamabad, Ather Minallah, a leader of the lawyers' movement and a spokesman for Chaudhry, called on the country’s new ruling coalition to live up to its promise to restore the deposed judges. “Instead of making excuses, the government should restore the judiciary to the November 2 [2007] position," he said. "A crime was committed [against the judiciary] and it needs to be punished.... They should restore the judges on June 12 and not delay it any further.”

Musharraf initially deposed Chaudhry in March 2007, accusing him of corruption and misconduct. But in a historic move, the Supreme Court reinstated him in July following unprecedented protests by the lawyers. Chaudhry’s judicial activism had reportedly angered officials, including a move to halt the privatization of a major steel company and his perceived interference in other business ventures.

Early last November, Musharraf again sacked Chaudhry and 60 fellow judges before they could challenge his controversial reelection the previous month. Restoration of the deposed judges then became a major issue in the run-up to the national polls on February 18.

The major winners of those parliamentary elections -- the Pakistan Peoples Party of late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) -- had initially promised to restore the judges. But they later fell out over the legal procedures. While the PPP wanted to introduce a comprehensive constitutional package to create an independent judiciary, its coalition partners urged Prime Minister Sayed Yousaf Raza Gillani to restore the deposed judges through executive order.

Such differences led the Pakistan Muslim League to withdraw its nine ministers from the cabinet, plunging the government into crisis.

Recent statements by the leaders of both political parties indicate that they agree on removing Musharraf by initiating impeachment proceedings against him in the parliament.

However, the lawyers’ “Long March” poses a serious challenge to the administration.

The government and lawyers have vowed to remain peaceful, with the government saying the lawyers have the right to protest. But a lawyers' demonstration turned deadly last July when a bomb attack killed sixteen people. In a country plagued by militant bombings and other violence, further unrest cannot be ruled out. demonstration

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.