Nirupama Subramanian

Battleground shifts to Lahore

ISLAMABAD: As protests against the ouster of Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary continued, with the battle between lawyers and the Government shifting to Lahore on Saturday, President Pervez Musharraf alleged that there was a "conspiracy" against him and the Government.

The Lahore High Court was the scene of a massive confrontation between the lawyers and the police.

Dozens of lawyers and several journalists were injured as the police used batons and fired teargas against lawyers who had gathered there for a "national convention" to chalk out a plan of action against the removal of Mr. Justice Chaudhary.

The convention resolved to organise more protests on March 21, when he is to appear again before the Supreme Judicial Council that is inquiring into the presidential reference against him.

When the lawyers attempted to take out a protest march on Lahore's Mall, the police locked the gates of the High Court and refused to let them out. When the lawyers tried to break out, throwing stones at the police, riot police fired tear-gas shells into the High Court premises from armoured vehicles.

The police later allowed the lawyers to walk out of the court and stage a demonstration on the main road.

On the seventh straight day of protests against the removal of Mr. Justice Chaudhary, lawyers in other cities also held anti-government demonstrations. After a day of violence, the capital was quiet, save for a few protesters outside the Supreme Court.

"No grudge"

Addressing a public rally in Pak Pattan, a town in Punjab, Gen. Musharraf said he had no personal grudge against Mr. Justice Chaudhary, and that he had merely forwarded a reference against him by the Government to the Supreme Judicial Council.

But there were elements that were trying to "heap" blame on him. "Who are these elements conspiring against me? Who are these elements trying to lower my image by blaming me for everything? However, if the people are with me, this conspiracy will not succeed," he said.

Friday's attack on the Geo TV office was an assault on the Government itself, Gen. Musharraf said. Those behind the incident would be punished. The Government suspended 14 policemen.

Bhagwandas' status

The Government tried to end speculation about the status of Justice Rana Bhagwandas, next in seniority to Mr. Chaudhary, who should have been sworn in acting Chief Justice, but was away in India then and has not yet returned.

A statement from Law Minister Wasi Zafar said, "the Government ... assures the lawyers and the whole nation that the very moment Justice Rana Bhagwandas returns he will be given the oath of acting Chief Justice as per the requirement of the constitutional provisions."

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