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Pakistan tries to derail popular cross-country protest

Authorities arrested hundreds of lawyers and activists and banned public gatherings in two provinces.

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Says Munir Malik, the lawyer who represented Chaudhry at the time he was first removed, these early successes were instrumental in mobilizing Pakistani public opinion behind an apolitical movement for the first time in Pakistani history.

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It was Chaudhry's first reinstatement, he says, that provided hope to the populace. "People became frustrated and there was no real outlet to vent that. Then along came the chance to say 'No, we won't accept this.' We were successful in that people realized that if they wanted justice they need an independent judiciary."

Principle versus politics

Some analysts now argue that the lawyers' principled stand has become tainted, as the movement has been co-opted by political parties and their interests.

The lawyers' movement can now be viewed as "a proxy for the struggle of opposition groups," says Aasim Sajjad, a history professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and a democracy activist.

"The original movement took root under very different conditions. Musharraf was a military dictator. All the opposition parties came together for the cause – it was unadulterated," he says.

"The vast majority of judges have now taken fresh oaths. What are you going to do about a judiciary not interested in its own independence?" Professor Sajjad continues, referring to a view among protesting lawyers that the judges who returned to office have compromised the movement's "all or nothing" effort to have Chaudhry reinstated. "The movement's ideology has been shaken," he says.

Still, the movement may continue to draw grass-roots support as an opposition movement to the increasingly unpopular government.

At a rally Wednesday in Abbottabad, in Pakistan's northwest, Nawaz Sharif stressed the significance of the march: "Today is a defining moment in Pakistan's history. We can change the destiny of this country. Pakistan stands at a crossroads today, and it is your duty to save it," he told a crowd of thousands of people.

I.A. Rehman, a board member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a senior journalist, says the government has two options: "Defuse the situation gracefully by reinstating the judges, or deal with the issue now as a law-and-order situation." The government appears to be prepared to do the latter, he says.

A meeting Wednesday between Army Chief Parvez Ashfaq Kayani and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani to discuss the political situation triggered concern among Pakistani media that the military might intervene if the situation escalates. It was the first time the possibility of an Army coup – however remote – had been so widely mentioned since the civilian government took office a year ago.

"If things get completely out of control, [Kayani's] role will get more obvious and more pronounced," says defense analyst Talat Masood, a retired general.

Sajjad and Mr. Rehman say the government will have itself to blame if the protests escalate.

"You lose the high ground when you take actions that are patently undemocratic," says Sajjad, adding that Wednesday's crackdown has probably further incensed the opposition.

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