Pakistani lawyers began a nationwide boycott of courts Monday to pressure President Pervez Musharraf to reinstate senior judges he sacked under a state of emergency more than three months ago.
Musharraf declared the emergency on November 3, citing deteriorating security in the country and a fight against Islamic militants, mainly in the country’s northwest. He also sacked Supreme Court judges and other top independent-minded jurists.
Since then, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and his family have been under virtual house arrest in Islamabad amid tight security. Several other senior judges are also restricted to their homes.
Musharraf’s move against the Supreme Court came before it was to rule on whether he was qualified to seek another presidential term. The court was widely expected to rule that, as army chief, Musharraf was ineligible for the October balloting, which he won.
The court boycott was called by the Pakistan Bar Council, the country’s main lawyers’ organization.
“We demand restoration of the judiciary. It is a single point demand to restore the judiciary as it was on Nov. 2,” said Qazi Mohammed Anwar, chairman of the council’s executive committee.
Lawyers have been at the forefront of public protests against Musharraf as the country prepares to elect a new parliament next week. Musharraf is not facing re-election, but needs a commanding majority in the legislature to block any moves for his impeachment.
But a public opinion survey released over the weekend showed that opposition parties loyal to the late Benazir Bhutto and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were running strong, while support for groups linked to the president is fading.
The survey, conducted last month for the US-based Terror Free Tomorrow organization, found that 36.7 per cent of those questioned said they would vote for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in the February 18 balloting.
It said 25.3 per cent planned to vote for Sharif’s party, pushing the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q into third place with just 12 per cent.
The PPP hopes to capitalize on a wave of sympathy and revulsion after Bhutto died in a suicide bomb and gun attack at an election rally on December 27 in Rawalpindi.
The combined support for the parties of Bhutto and Sharif was just 39 per cent in a similar survey in August, Terror Free Tomorrow said. It provided no breakdown.
Terror Free Tomorrow said the survey was based on interviews with 1,157 people across Pakistan during January 19-29 and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
But Pakistan’s winner-takes-all electoral system and strong regional-based parties mean that a broader-based party such as Bhutto’s, whose votes are spread across the country, can struggle to translate its vote bank into seats in the legislature.
Terror Free Tomorrow, based in Washington, D.C., is a not-for-profit organization that says it seeks to reduce support for international terrorism. Its bipartisan advisory board includes Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.
Tariq Azim, a leader of the PML-Q, rejected the findings and maintained that his group will win the most seats in the federal parliament.
“We believe in the real survey when the voters will deliver their verdict,” said Azim, whose party has cast doubts on the accuracy of other recent polls suggesting the Musharraf camp was struggling.
The opposition says the PML-Q’s public optimism suggests authorities will rig the election in its favor to protect Musharraf from the threat of impeachment in the new parliament.
Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, told a rally of 7,000 supporters Sunday near the eastern city of Lahore that the election would sweep away the current regime.
“God willing, the rule of usurpers will come to an end,” he said amid chants of “Go Musharraf go” and “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.”
Rising violence has put a damper on campaigning ahead of the voting, especially in the northwest, where a suicide bomber killed 27 people Saturday at an election rally by a secular Pashtun group.
No group claimed responsibility, but suspicion fell on Islamic extremists. (AP)
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