REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

When armed mobs took over the streets of Karachi less than two weeks ago, it seemed like Pakistan's largest city was out of control. Even the media came under direct attack.

MAN (Translation): Get down, look at this bullet, this almost got me.

The resulting carnage was a clear sign that President Pervez Musharraf's grip on power was weakening and that the country's judicial crisis threatens to produce even more civil unrest.

SALIM BUKHARA, EDITOR, ‘THE NEWS’, LAHORE: Ever since Musharraf took over, I think this is the most difficult crisis of his regime, that he is facing in Karachi. It's a very difficult situation.

It's a crisis is largely of Musharraf's own making. In early March, the President called in Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudry, and demanded he resign - ostensibly on charges of official misconduct, including allegations he had misused his powers to secure a government job for one of his sons. When the judge refused to stand aside, he was suspended, prompting howls of protest from Pakistan's legal fraternity. They accused General Musharraf of trying to fix the judiciary and secure his own position ahead of elections planned for later in the year.

ABRAR HASAN, PRESIDENT SINDH SUPREME COURT BAR ASSOCIATION: No action can be taken against the head of the judiciary, which can only be taken by the full court, so it was all illegal. He was not allowed to meet anybody, there was no access, no information. These are the circumstances which irritated the lawyers' community throughout Pakistan, and we started our campaign.

The ousting of the chief justice ignited a chain reaction of staggering proportions. On May 5, when Chaudhry set out by road from Islamabad to Lahore - a trip that should only take four hours - the throngs of well-wishers turned the journey into a 26-hour spectacle. By removing the country's top judge, Musharraf had unwittingly turned him into a potent political symbol and set the scene for a showdown between Pakistan's ruling military elite and the courts.

SALIM BUKHARI: The general understanding of the people in the intelligentsia is that this is now between the judiciary and the army. One of the leaders of the ruling elite has said that - it's a matter between the army and the judiciary.

Very few people actually believed that Chaudhry had abused his powers. But in the past 12 months, the chief justice had twice embarrassed the government with his rulings. One forced Pakistan's intelligence agencies to turn over prisoners who had been secretly detained during the war on terror. Another overturned the planned privatisation of Pakistan's state steel mills, which were to be sold to a close friend of the Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz. And with Musharraf keen to run for a further term in office, it seems Justice Chaudry was an obstacle that had to be removed.

ABRAR HASAN: This is a deliberate attempt to subjugate the judiciary, to somehow subjugate the judges to make them subordinate to the executive branch, which we cannot tolerate.

Emboldened by the crowds that flocked to greet him, Justice Chaudry vowed to maintain the rage over his removal and the interference in the judiciary. Riding high on the success of his visit to Lahore, the Chief Justice Chaudry prepared for his next trip - to Pakistan's biggest city, the southern port of Karachi.

Everyone knew that there would be trouble in Karachi. This city is MQM territory. MQM is a pro-government party that's well-known for its violent tactics, and they'd insisted on holding a massive rally on the same day that the chief justice was due to arrive. On that morning, here on the road to the airport, opposition parties, like Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party were also gathering, and soon the tension would turn to deadly violence.
The mobs of mainly MQM thugs were taking control of the streets of Karachi. The party draws its support from the Muhajirs - an ethnic group which originates from across the border in India, and which now dominates in Sindh province and its capital, Karachi. In an effort to improve their image and expand their power base, MQM has been supporting General Musharraf, especially in his stand against the chief justice. It was MQM thugs which blocked the main arteries into the city. As the scene turned ugly the police stood by and did nothing.


SALIM BUKHARI: Nobody challenged them at that time - "What the hell are you doing?" I mean, I think that is where the trouble started getting out of hand. There were huge numbers of people, there were a lot of vehicles running around with the flags of that ethnic group. And their intentions were known that they would not allow the chief justice to come out of the Karachi airport, and that's exactly what happened.

Arriving at Karachi airport, the chief justice found himself unable to leave - government security forces confining him to the arrivals lounge.

ABRAR HASAN: It was not possible for him to come out of the airport safely. It was contrary to the assurances given to us by the administration, by the government of Sindh, by the federal government. This all happened in violation of their assurances, which they even gave before the court.

Out on the streets the mob was now smashing buildings, burning cars, and prowling for fresh victims. Those singled out to be killed were mainly bearded Pashtun men, as well as members of opposition parties who had come out to meet the chief justice. Within a few hours Karachi's morgue had filled with over 35 corpses. As the mob continued their rampage, a local TV network was covering its every move.

ARSHAD ZUBERI, AAJ TV: So both sides started attacking each other, and we were carrying it live on television. They did not know that they were being seen live on TV.

As the journalists at AAJ TV continued their live coverage, they became part of the story.

ARSHAD ZUBERI: And from what we know, it was a mother of one of the gunmen, who, she said, "Where are you?" And this young man said that "I am with a friend." She said, "You are lying. I can see you on AAJ Television. You are having a gun in your hand and you're firing." Then they realised that they are live on TV, so they turned their guns on us.

MQM members began attacking the TV station.

ARSHAD ZUBERI: We did not expect so many guns this time. Last time there were not guns - it was a mob throwing stones or trying to burn the building, but this time there were guns. And once they realised that we are filming them, they climbed buildings on either side and started shooting at us from the rooftops.

MAN (Translation): Lie down, don't go out there.

With the staff at AAJ TV now the focus of the attack, journalists described the drama on their mobile phones.

ARSHAD ZUBERI: On that building there - the gunman was standing on that building there, and he was shooting. If you come out from there, you can see he was standing on that corner there with a telescopic lens, and he was shooting at us.

But MQM says the TV station was simply caught in the crossfire between MQM members and their political opponents.


REPORTER: What about the firing on the TV station? What was the situation there?

SHOAIB BUKHARI, MQM SPOKESPERSON: That was...it was situation, it was through crossfiring. It was crossfiring, which fortunately or unfortunately, it came in mid of those crossfiring. And that area is still today, at this moment is dominated by ANP, Pashtun people.

Although the MQM Minister is keen to blame Karachi's Pashtun minority for the violence, it is MQM that holds government in Sindh province, including control over the police, who took hours to react.

ARSHAD ZUBERI: We called for help from the law enforcing agencies.

REPORTER: Did you get it?

ARSHAD ZUBERI: It came after about five hours.

General Musharraf's attack on the judge threatens to undermine his nearly 8-year grip on power but ironically it is the Supreme Court which will rule on the charges against one of its own. Many are wondering if this crisis spells the beginning of the end for the general or whether the court will bow to his will.

SALIM BUKHARI: It depends on the decision of the court. Whether the court is going to live up to the expectations of the people and the lawyer community, whether they're going to look after their own prestige or not, or they are going to act like the judiciary has acted in the past under a military ruler. I think we'll have to wait a little more to see which way things go.





Credits

Reporter/Camera
NICK LAZAREDES

Editor
DAVID POTTS

Subtitling
AESH RAO

Field Producer/Researcher
IRSHAD RAO



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