ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Hundreds of Pakistani lawyers protested Thursday to demand the reinstatement of judges sacked by former president Pervez Musharraf, an issue at the heart of political instability here.
Several cities saw the black-suited lawyers joined by political party workers and other supporters carrying black flags as they blocked key roads for two hours in Islamabad, shouting slogans against the government.
"Reinstate judges" they chanted, saying that "War will continue" until the judiciary's independence is restored.
Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, deposed dozens of judges under a state of emergency last November when it appeared they would challenge his re-election as president the previous month.
The sackings sparked large and sometimes violent protests by Pakistan's influential lawyers.
Musharraf resigned on August 18 under the threat of impeachment charges levelled by the government but Pakistan's shaky ruling coalition has since failed to decide how to restore the judges.
The former prime minister Nawaz Sharif withdrew his party's support from the coalition three days ago over the issue, saying the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was dragging its feet.
A group of angry lawyers here Thursday tore down posters of PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto and a leading presidential candidate to succeed Musharraf in a September 6 election.
Since Sharif's party quit Pakistan's four-party coalition on Monday the government has reappointed eight judges sacked by Musharraf but lawyers' groups have dismissed the gesture as a political stunt.
They say the move was designed to harm their demands for the reinstatement of all those removed last year, pointing out that the eight were not reinstated but freshly appointed. The technicality allowed the government to hold off on any change to the status of the sacked judges.
These include the independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, seen as the central figure in the dispute.
Critics have said that Zardari does not want Chaudry restored to his position as he could rescind an amnesty that allowed him and his slain wife Bhutto to return to Pakistan last year after years in exile.
In the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday hundreds of lawyers staged sit-down protests in front of the provincial assembly building and three other public sites.
"Those judges who have taken a new oath of their offices have accepted the illegal actions of former president Pervez Musharraf," lawyers' leader Aitzaz Ahsan said.
"We are not fighting for our jobs but for principles," he added.
In the central city of Multan 1,000 lawyers, traders, political workers and other supporters blocked the main national highway, bringing all inter-city traffic to a halt.
"Death to Zardari," "Asif Zardari is the enemy of judiciary, enemy of justice," shouted protesters, who were carrying flags and placards.
"It is a conspiracy against an independent judiciary," the leader of Multan Bar Association, Mehmood Ashraf Khan told the protesters.
There were also protests in the southern port of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.
"He is the chief justice and until he and other judges are reinstated our struggle will continue," Rashid Razvi, leader of the Karachi Bar Council told AFP.
"The nation recognises only Iftikhar Chaudhry as the chief justice and any other occupying his seat is illegal and unconstitutional," he said.
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