Nirupama Subramanian

Force used to disperse protesters

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan capital's showpiece avenues turned into a battleground on Friday as people protesting Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary's removal clashed violently with the police, ahead of his second appearance before the judicial panel inquiring into the presidential reference against him.

Lawyers, joined by members of the Opposition parties, held protests in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar.

The five-member Supreme Judicial Council held an in-camera hearing with Mr. Justice Chaudhary, who was accompanied by four defence lawyers. The next hearing is scheduled for March 21.

The riot police used rubber bullets, batons and teargas to disperse the protesters on roads leading to the Supreme Court for several hours before Mr. Justice Chaudhary was due to arrive.

Metres from the President's Aiwan-e-Sadr office, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, the protesters retaliated with stones and bottles. At one point, the police used batons to disperse journalists covering the pitched battles.

Apparently angered by the live coverage of the unfolding events on television, policemen forced their way into the office of Geo TV here, breaking its glass doors and, according to its journalists, firing a teargas shell into the building. In Karachi, Geo TV evacuated its office after it received a call, saying a bomb had been planted in the building. Its anchors said the channel had made arrangements to continue coverage.

Earlier in the day, trouble erupted when the police stopped Jamaat-e-Islami leader Qazi Hussain from going towards the Supreme Court, outside which he had planned to offer Friday prayers.

Street battles began as the police arrested him and other leaders of the Islamist party as they tried to break through the barricades. Some politicians were arrested overnight, and the police sealed all entry points to the capital.

But lawyers and protesters from political parties managed to reach the court building in strength, shouting slogans against President Pervez Musharraf and the Government.

Stung by criticism that leaders of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party were conspicuous by their absence during Tuesday's protest, top PPP leaders turned out in full strength outside the court.

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