ISLAMABAD – A group of retired senior military officers said on Thursday President Pervez Musharraf should hand over power to the judge he sacked three months ago to ensure national elections are fair.
The backing for deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from old generals, air marshals, admirals and intelligence chiefs coincided with protests by lawyers in support of the judge and the independence of the judiciary.
“General Musharraf’s continuation in power is damaging to the country. He should quit,” retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan told journalists after a meeting of a committee formed to make recommendations.
“He should hand over power to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry,” he told a news conference in an Islamabad hotel.
Pakistan’s Western allies hope the vote on February 18 will restore stability after months of unrest over Musharraf’s maneuvers to hold on to power amid a surge in militant violence.
Fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s future deepened after the assassination of pro-Western opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27.
Chaudhry was sacked and put under house arrest on November 3, when Musharraf invoked a brief period of emergency rule in order to purge the judiciary of judges who appeared on the brink of annulling his re-election as president while still army chief by a parliament at the end of its term.
Thousands of opposition politicians and party workers were arrested along with rights activists, lawyers and judges, but most had been released by the time Musharraf ended emergency rule in mid-December.
Musharraf came to power as general in a 1999 coup, but stepped down as army chief in November to become a civilian president.
Pakistan has spent half its time ruled by generals since its formation out of the partition of India in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims.
Chaudhry and several other judges and leading lawyers remain under detention at their homes, and the former chief justice issued an open letter to Western governments on Wednesday in which he referred to Musharraf as “a person claiming to be head of state.”
Musharraf has called Chaudhry corrupt and inept, and he responded to earlier calls from the retired military men by saying they were insignificant and he’d pushed many of them out of service.
In Lahore, some 4,000 lawyers, political workers and rights activists took to the street to demand Musharraf’s removal and restoration of the deposed judges. They also tore down roadside hoardings and posters of pro-Musharraf politicians.
Similar rallies were held in other major cities including Karachi, Peshawar.
Around 150 lawyers and rights activist, carrying red and black flags and posters of Chaudhry, marched to the judge’s residence in Islamabad and chanted “Go Musharraf Go” while police in full riot-gear looked on.