ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Thousands of lawyers blocked roads across Pakistan on Thursday to press the government to reinstate judges purged by former president Pervez Musharraf, as militants attacked police in the northwest, killing 11 people.
A bitter disagreement between the country’s two main political parties over the judges led to a split in the ruling coalition this week, dashing hopes for stability in the nuclear-armed country after Musharraf’s resignation last week.
Political uncertainty, militant violence and economic woes have undermined investor confidence, leading to a sharp slide in Pakistan stocks which authorities have tried to halt by setting a floor for the key share index.
Black-suited lawyers sat down on roads in all major cities to press the coalition, led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, to reappoint dozens of judges Musharraf dismissed when he imposed emergency rule in November.
Lawyers were at the forefront of opposition to Musharraf after the former army chief clashed with the then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March last year, and their protests pose a challenge to the coalition that came to power after February elections.
“The lawyers are proving how organized they are, that they have total consensus, and this protest will continue until the chief justice is restored,” firebrand lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.
The country’s second biggest party, headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, pulled out of the coalition on Monday, saying Bhutto’s party broke promises to give the judges their jobs back.
Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, led by her widower Asif Ali Zardari, has been dragging its feet on the judges because it fears Chaudhry will take up a challenge to an amnesty granted to Zardari and other party leaders from graft charges, analysts say.
Several thousand slogan-chanting lawyers and flag-waving activists squatted on main roads in central Lahore for about two hours, bringing traffic to a standstill.
In an ominous sign for the government, protesters directed their anger at Zardari, who looks set to become president in a September 6 vote by legislators.
“Down with Zardari” and “Zardari, killer of Pakistani judiciary,” hundreds of lawyers and activists chanted in the eastern city of Multan.
In Islamabad, protesters tore down banners of Zardari while similar protests were held in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and smaller cities.
POLICE BUS BLOWN UP
As the politicians tussle over the judges and who will replace Musharraf as president, violence has been surging in the northwest where security forces are battling militants in several areas and the militants are striking back with bombs.
Government soldiers backed by air strikes killed nearly 50 militants in heavy clashes in the northwest on Wednesday, while on Thursday, a car bomb blew up a police bus near the town of Bannu, killing nine policemen and two passers-by, police said.
Musharraf’s support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism was deeply unpopular but Zardari, seen as close to the United States, has vowed to press ahead with the effort.
Washington, an important source of aid for Islamabad, says al Qaeda and Taliban militants orchestrate violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the West from sanctuaries in the northwest.
Nervous investors withdrawing their funds from Pakistan in the face of violence and political instability have sent the country’s financial markets skidding lower.
The rupee has lost about a quarter of its value against the dollar this year. Pakistan’s stock market, which rose for six consecutive years to 2007 and was one of the best-performing markets in Asia in that period, has fallen about 36 percent.
Struggling to halt the slide, stock exchange authorities announced early on Thursday they were setting a floor for the index at Wednesday’s closing level.
Some dealers said the move would help confidence, at least in the short-term, and the index opened more than 1 percent higher before slipping back a bit. It closed up 0.64 percent.
Some dealers hope next week’s presidential election, when members of the country’s four provincial assemblies and two-chamber national parliament vote for Musharraf’s replacement, will bring some clarity to the political outlook.
Bhutto’s party has nominated Zardari while Sharif’s has put up a former Supreme Court judge, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui.
The main pro-Musharraf party nominated a former government minister and top party official, Mushahid Hussain Sayed.