Pakistani judge to visit Karachi amid warnings of violence


Islamabad : Pakistan's suspended chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will visit the southern city of Karachi this weekend despite government warnings of clashes between his supporters and those of President Pervez Musharraf, his lawyer said Friday.

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Chaudhry was due to address the Bar Association on Saturday while opposition parties planned a demonstration in support of the judge, who was suspended by the president on March 9 for alleged abuse of office.

The events will coincide with a rally by the pro-Musharraf nationalist Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which has a strong political following in the city.

Chaudhry had received a letter from the interior ministry advising him to postpone the visit, citing risks of violence between rival factions, Chaudry's defence lawyers, Munir Malik, said.

"This letter is simply a desperate effort by the government to prevent the Chief Justice from traveling to Karachi, but we will not back down and will go ahead with the planned visit," Malik said.

Intelligence reports cited in the letter also said terrorist attacks could be made against senior officials in the coming days, he added.

Tensions were underscored Thursday by a drive-by shooting by unknown gunmen at the lawyer's home in Karachi. No one was injured in the attack.

Earlier, the MQM-led local government had cordoned off Malik's office.

Chaudhry made a number of public appearances in recent weeks, drawing crowds of thousands in cities across the country. His slow procession by road from Islamabad to Lahore last weekend was seen as another sign of a growing political movement against Musharraf's authority.

Meanwhile, Karachi police Thursday night removed reception camps set up by opposition parties before Chaudhry's visit. Hundreds of people were arrested during the operation, activists claimed.

Opposition members of the upper house of parliament in Islamabad Friday condemned the police action and staged a token walk out.

"The government will be held responsible for any political violence in Karachi on Saturday," said Senator Raza Rabbani, the leader of the Pakistani People's Party Parliamentarians.

Many Pakistanis regard Chaudhry's suspension as retribution for his earlier decisions that went against the government, including the prevention of a major steel privatisation in Karachi and the exertion of pressure on intelligence agencies to locate dozens of victims of "forced disappearances."

It has also been speculated that he was sidelined to prevent any legal challenge to Musharraf's plan to seek re-election by the current parliament later this year.