Pakistan: protests sweep nation over judicial crisis

Continuing protests over the suspension of the chief justice, thousands of opposition activsts and lawyers rallied in major cities across Pakistan and clashed with police, demanding President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation. In Islamabad, around 1,000 protesters staged an angry rally outside the Supreme Court building. The former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Hamid Gul, took part in protests in front of the national Parliament. Police and paramilitary troops have been deployed in large numbers in and around the Parliament and Supreme Court buildings, and emegrency orders against further public gatherings are in effect.

In Quetta, police fired tear gas shells and baton-charged a group of around 100 lawyers. Some attorneys their black jackets in protest. Around 3,000 lawyers in Lahore, carrying black banners and chanting “go Musharraf, go”, broke through police barricades.

Cricket-star-turned-opposition-activist Imran Khan told protesters in Islamabad that they were witnessing “the beginning of a revolution. This is not only a war by the political parties, this is everyone’s war.”

Suspended Chief Justice Iftikar Muhammad Chaudhry and eight other judges who resigned in protest against the suspension have been invited to an all-Pakistan lawyers’ convention to be held in Peshwar on March 22. Lawyers also boycotted courts throughout the country for the 11th straight day. (Zee News, India, March 21)

The government’s decision to replace Chaudhry with Rana Bhagwan Das, the only Hindu judge in the Supreme Court, as the acting Chief Justice, has sparked a heated debate on whether a non-Muslim can head the Pakistan’s high court. Highlighting this issue, Justice Das made a pilgrimage to India this week just as the protests were mounting to his ascension.

Meanwhile, leader of his own faction of the Jamaat Uleman Islami-S group Maulana Sami-ul-Haq and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a new outfit floated by Hafeez Saeed, the founder leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Toyaba, criticised the government’s decision to make Justice Das the acting Chief Justice.

Hafiz Abd-ur-Rahman Makki, leader of the opposition Jamaat-ud-Dawa party said, “It is against the Shariah to appoint Justice Rana Bhagwan Das as ACJ [acting chief justice].”

While saying he held Justice Das in the “highest esteem”, Makki asserted that “Pakistan is a state based on an Islamic ideological foundation and a non-Muslim person cannot head the judiciary of the country, nor can he head any one of the other basic pillars of the state such as the Executive or the Legislature”.

While Pakistan’s constitution does not explicitly bar non-Muslims from holding the post of the Chief Justice, some argue that the Chief Justice also becomes the head of the Shariat Court. Ironically, Justice Das was the only judge among Pakistan’s Supreme Court judges who has a masters degree in Islamic law.

As ACJ, Das would also head the five-judge Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) which is currently hearing charges against Chaudhry for misconduct and abuse of power. He could take over as Chief Justice if Chaudhry is not restored to his post. (DNA, India, March 21)

The current ACJ, Justice Javed Iqbal, who took over upon Chaudhry’s resignation March 9, has said he supports the right of Justice Das to assume the post. (Online News, Pakistan, March 21) The high court has also opened a probe into the alleged police “manhandling” of Chaudhry as he was on his way to Supreme Court building to answer charges against him March 13. (Pakistan Times, March 20)

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