Pakistani Lawyers' Anti-Musharraf March Nears Islamabad
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Thousands of Pakistani lawyers and workers neared Islamabad on Friday on the final leg of a "long march" to demand the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf.
Cheering crowds turned out in towns along the route to welcome the cavalcade of around 400 cars and buses, which left the eastern city of Lahore late Thursday.
Security officials said 6,000 paramilitary troops and police were deployed in the capital ahead of the arrival of the lawyers, who say they will stage a sit-in outside parliament to press the government to restore the judges.
"Parliament must now respect the sentiments of people, the people have spoken and they want the restoration of the judges," Supreme Court Bar Association chief Aitzaz Ahsan, who is leading the march, told AFP.
"The parliament should not waste time now and restore them. We will continue our long marches until the judges are restored," said Ahsan, a close aide of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who led the campaign against Musharraf's attempts to fire him.
The cavalcade arrived in Islamabad's twin city Rawalpindi on Friday afternoon after completing the 256-kilometre (160-mile) journey from Lahore, the culmination of a nationwide journey that began on Monday.
Security was tight around the homes of Musharraf and senior military officials in the garrison city, some 20 kilometres from Islamabad.
The lawyers were expected to arrive shortly in the capital, where authorities used barbed wire and shipping containers to block the parliament building and stationed armoured personnel vehicles at several points.
"I have not slept since Thursday but do not feel tired. I am absolutely ecstatic at the support we received throughout the journey," lawyer Khawar Ali who was traveling with the motorcade told AFP.
"We are going to see the fulfilment of our dream to have independent judges back and Musharraf ousted," said another lawyer Azhar Siddique.
Musharraf sacked Chaudhry and around 60 other judges during a state of emergency on November 3 when it appeared they would overturn his re-election as president the previous month. He also tried to fire him earlier in the year.
The new coalition government led by the parties of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif, which defeated Musharraf's allies in elections in February, has vowed to restore the judges.
But it has been hobbled so far by disagreements over the mechanics, given that bringing back Chaudhry could both lead to a standoff with Musharraf and also threaten an amnesty given to Bhutto's husband on graft charges.
Sharif pulled his party's ministers from the cabinet in May over the issue.
The government has announced several steps in recent days that indicate the restoration of the judges is imminent, including a decision to increase the size of the Supreme Court from 16 to 29.
It has also decided to pay seven months' salaries to all those deposed by Musharraf, a government spokesman told AFP.
"This is clearest indication that government means to restore them," retired judge Tariq Mehmood, a senior leader of the lawyers' movement, told AFP.
Top interior ministry official Rehman Malik told reporters that the government would not block the march adding the authorities have a "sufficient" number of security forces deployed to protect the capital.
He estimated that the protesters would not stay in Islamabad for more than 48 hours but said they would be provided with food and water.
© 2008 Agence France Presse