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Protesters in Pakistan support suspended judge

Demand president quit over removal

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Protesters burned an effigy of President Pervez Musharraf and demanded his resignation, as thousands rallied across Pakistan during a court hearing yesterday for a top judge removed by the government.

Musharraf suspended Ifitkhar Mohammed Chaudhry from his Supreme Court post last month, citing suspicions that he had abused his position. In one instance, he allegedly sought a promotion for his son.

But critics accuse the general of undermining the independence of the judiciary and trying to oust a strong-willed judge before elections that could trigger legal challenges to his continued rule.

In the latest in a series of demonstrations, more than 3,000 opposition party activists and lawyers took to the streets of Karachi, Lahore, and other cities.

At the biggest gathering, protesters chanted "Go Musharraf Go" and "Stop attacking the judiciary" outside the Supreme Court in the capital, Islamabad. Some of the participants set fire to an effigy of the president and a car tire outside the white marble court complex, dancing around the flames and bearing colorful political party flags as they shouted slogans.

The hearing inside was adjourned until April 18 after Chaudhry's lawyers objected to three of the five judges on the Supreme Judicial Council reviewing his case. Munir Malik, a lawyer for Chaudhry, said the three had "personal differences" with the suspended justice.

Though supported by all Pakistan's main secular and religious opposition parties, the street protests have failed to attract the kind of crowds that could pose an immediate threat to Musharraf's rule, which began with a bloodless coup in 1999. However, combined with fierce criticism in much of Pakistan's media, the outcry has put Musharraf on the defensive ahead of parliamentary elections due around the end of 2007.

Musharraf, a key US military ally, is expected to seek reelection for another term as president from the outgoing assemblies and has given no sign that he will give up his army post -- a stance that opposition parties could challenge before the Supreme Court.