Pakistanis give hero’s welcome to suspended judge


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Islamabad : Pakistan's suspended chief justice received a tumultuous welcome from supporters in several towns Saturday as he drove in a convoy of hundreds of vehicles from Islamabad to Lahore where he was due to address a rally.

Thousands of cheering people lined the route and showered rose petals and rupee bills on the procession of Chaudhry Iftikhar, with opposition party activists and lawyers chanting anti-government slogans.

Fifteen people were injured as the police baton-charged protesters and fired tear gas shells in the town of Jehlum.

Meanwhile, authorities blocked transmission by the Geo and ARY private television channels that were airing live coverage of the events. At his own rally, President Pervez Musharraf condemned the politicisation of his decision to remove Chaudhry on March 9 for misconduct and abuse of office.

In a bid to disrupt the judge's appearance, police on Friday detained some 7,000 opposition activists, party leaders said. Officials in the Punjab province where Lahore is situated rejected the claims as "propaganda".

Further arrests were made Saturday and opposition supporters scuffled with police as the slow-moving caravan of vehicles made brief stops along the 270-kilometre route.

Musharraf, who is speculated to have sidelined Chaudhry to prevent a legal challenge to his planned re-election by the current parliament in November, also gathered several thousand supporters in a separate rally Saturday in the southern Sindh province.

Clearly disturbed by Chaudhry's growing popularity, he said the lawyers would not succeed in turning a constitutional and judicial issue into a political movement against the government.

"The schemes of the lawyers are bound to fail since the public is not with them but with me at this rally. The public is not interested in politics, but in development," he said in the southeastern city of Mirpur Khas.

However, a prominent journalist from the Geo news channel, Hamid Mir, contended that the suspension of the chief justice had already unleashed a major outpouring of political sentiment.

"So much enthusiasm in the people of Punjab was not seen since April 1986 when (opposition leader) Benazir Bhutto was warmly welcomed by hundreds of thousands of people as she returned home after a long exile", he said.