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Sacking of Pakistani chief justice sparks ire

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2007


Foreshadowing the turbulent road ahead to Pakistan's presidential elections, on Friday the government dismissed the outspoken chief justice of the Supreme Court. Analysts say the move is just one of several that amplify President Pervez Musharraf's calculated bid to cling to power.

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Amid national outcry, Pakistan's government quickly defended the dismissal, the first time a member of the Supreme Court has effectively been removed under the Constitution.

"The action against the [chief justice] is in line with the law and Constitution, and such action would be taken on complaints against any entity," Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukut Aziz told local media Saturday.

But critics say that silencing Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry, seen as a potential obstacle to the legality of Mr. Musharraf's reelection bid, has cast further doubt that the elections scheduled between September and November will be free and fair. His removal, they add, also highlights a period of crisis for Musharraf: With elections on the horizon and his political base eroded, he is turning to heavy-handed tactics to secure victory at the polls..

"This is part of the larger plan for Musharraf to take control of all institutions and dominate whatever political process is left," says S. Akbar Zaidi, an independent social scientist in Karachi.

Justice Chaudhry's dismissal unleashed a frenzy from the press and a revolt from lawyers across the country, who called for a nationwide strike on Monday.

Judge aired Pakistan's dirty laundry

Since Musharraf appointed him in 2005, Chaudhry has made a name for himself by doing precisely what the administration has wanted least: He aired its dirty laundry and issued judgments seeking rectification. Last year he blocked a government bid to sell the majority of the state-owned Pakistan Steel Mills to a private consortium, a blow that proved a rare and embarrassing check on the administration.

Following public outcry in January, Chaudhry also compelled the government to trace the whereabouts of terrorism suspects, many of whom had been allegedly jailed without evidence and prevented from contacting their families. When results were not produced fast enough, Chaudhry chastised a government lawyer and expressed disappointment with the administration's efforts, a spat the media seized upon.

Some observers speculate that, given Chaudhry's antagonistic strain, the president's office may have feared that he would block the legality of Musharraf's reelection bid. On Friday, he was asked to step down from his post, pending an investigation into charges of judicial misconduct.

"Chaudhry has shown more independence than the government thought," says Sen. Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the opposition Pakistan People's Party. "Probably the government would be suspicious that Chaudhry would not toe the government line."

There is no doubt that Musharraf, as both president and the chief of army staff, still holds the real power. But years of military rule and increasing isolation have frayed his shroud of legitimacy and his pro-Western economic and political policies have undercut his political base and popular support.