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(New York) - The Pakistani government must end the arbitrary detention of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and cease the police crackdown on lawyers staging peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 9, Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf summoned Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to his office and effectively dismissed him for alleged “misuse of office.” The government subsequently declared the chief justice to be “non-functional” and has held him incommunicado at his official residence. It appears Justice Chaudhry has refused to resign.

Human Rights Watch said the government’s dismissal and detention of the chief justice contravened provisions for the removal of judges under Pakistan’s constitution and severely undermined judicial independence in the country.

Human Rights Watch called for Justice Chaudhry’s immediate release from illegal detention.

“By brazenly and unlawfully dismissing, detaining and humiliating the chief justice of the Supreme Court, President Musharraf has created a constitutional crisis at the judiciary’s expense,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Musharraf has undermined judicial independence before and nothing could make that more clear than his arrest of the Chief Justice.”

The government has not released any details of the charges and is presenting a legal reference against the chief justice to Pakistan’s Supreme Judicial Council, a body constitutionally mandated to hear complaints against the senior judiciary, on March 13. Justice Chaudhry, Pakistan’s bar associations and human rights groups have demanded a public hearing. The government said that the hearing will be in camera and hence closed to the public.

“The Pakistani government must allow Justice Chaudhry a fair, open hearing where he has adequate opportunity to study the charges leveled and benefit from legal advice,” said Hasan. “Anything less will amount to a mockery of justice.”

On March 12, lawyers across Pakistan protested the arrest and detention of the chief justice by boycotting court proceedings and holding peaceful demonstrations. Police in the central Pakistani city of Lahore violently broke up one of the largest demonstrations ever by high court lawyers in Pakistan. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that protestors were peacefully marching down a main thoroughfare when police used batons to break up the procession. At least 20 lawyers were injured and some 50 have been arrested.

“The brutal assault on lawyers demonstrating for the chief justice raises bigger issues about the rule of law in Pakistan,” said Hasan. “The government needs to respond to this by taking appropriate action against those government officials responsible.”

Human Rights Watch said that the move to oust Justice Chaudhry points towards the Pakistani government’s determination to ensure control over the judiciary in the run up to elections due by the end of the year. Although Musharraf had appointed Justice Chaudhry in 2005, the judge has subsequently come to be regarded as a controversial figure who has attempted to assert judicial independence. Recently, he has taken up several human rights cases including initiating proceedings in cases involving enforced disappearances.

Research by Human Rights Watch indicates a pattern of “disappearances” in Pakistan involving US complicity in the abduction of individuals in the “global war on terror” and their interrogations by US law enforcement agents in illegal detention centers run by the Pakistani military’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Human Rights Watch called upon the United States and other governments to urge President Musharraf to promptly take meaningful steps to restore respect for the rule of law in Pakistan, including the release of the chief justice.

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