The courts across Pakistan were boycotted by hundreds of rallied lawyers. That’s the new campaign to force President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to step down as supporters of former premier Nawaz Sharif prepared for his promised return from exile.
Courts in major cities including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Islamabad and Rawalpindi were largely deserted and lawyers hoisted black flags, witnesses said.
In Lahore, about 500 lawyers wearing black armbands marched on a road chanting slogans against Musharraf. Dozens of lawyers rallied in Quetta chanting "Go Musharraf, Go!"
Lawyers have been at the forefront of a campaign against military rule in Pakistan since Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, tried to sack the chief justice in March. The move sparked anti-government rallies until the Supreme Court reinstated the judge in July.
"This is the second phase of our protest, and God willing, we will again be successful," said Mohammed Azhar, a spokesman for the Supreme Court Bar Association. The association is the top representative body of lawyers in Pakistan.
"We are organizing peaceful rallies today against the dictatorial rule of Musharraf," he said.
Despite the protests, a Supreme Court bench in Islamabad headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry heard legal challenges to Musharraf's dual role as president and army chief and his eligibility to run for another presidential term.
Musharraf is expected to seek a new five-year term from lawmakers by mid-October, but has yet to make a public commitment to resign as army chief. Many experts say that to keep his uniform - the main source of his power - beyond 2007 would violate the Constitution.
Political tensions are rising in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister who was ousted by Musharraf in his coup, says he will return from exile on Monday to challenge Musharraf's bid to extend his rule and to contest parliamentary elections due by January 2008.
Musharraf is trying to strike a deal with another exiled former prime minister planning a comeback, Benazir Bhutto, that could lead to them sharing power.
Sharif supporters are planning to converge on Islamabad to welcome him Monday, but there are expectations that authorities may try and block them. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party claims that authorities have already rounded up at least 250 of its supporters around the country.
The PML-N in North West Frontier Province plans to rent a bulldozer to clear any barriers from the Attock Bridge that supporters must pass on their way from the province to the capital, said Pirsadir Shah, president of the PMLN in the province.
In the past, Punjab police have used sandbags and shipping containers to obstruct processions of anti-government protesters.
"The arrival of Nawaz Sharif is a big event in the history of the country," Shah told The Associated Press. "We will not tolerate any hurdle in the way of a peaceful procession of political workers."
The Supreme Court ruled last month that Sharif, who served twice as prime minister in the 1990s, was free to enter Pakistan and that his return should not be obstructed, but government lawyers have suggested Sharif could face unspecified legal action if he comes back.
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