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Judge protests growing in Pakistan

Story Highlights

NEW: Musharraf says he won't declare state of emergency or delay elections
• Pakistan president suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice on March 9
• Government denies suspension was politically motivated
• Move sparked riots among lawyers and opposition political groups
• Crisis has deepened as six judges have resigned in protest
From CNN's Syed Mohsin Naqvi
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LAHORE, Pakistan (CNN) -- For a second week, thousands of lawyers packed the streets of Pakistan's cities and towns to protest President Pervez Musharraf's suspension of the country's top judge earlier this month, a move that has raised questions about the state of democracy in the country.

More than 4,000 lawyers rallied in Lahore, while similar protests took place in Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta.

The rally in Quetta turned violent when police and protesters clashed, prompting the authorities to fire tear gas to disperse the crowds.

A heavy contingent of Pakistani rangers and police have been deployed at key buildings in the capital city of Islamabad, amid protests calls from lawyers' organizations and opposition parties.

Lawyers also continued their boycott of the courts, preventing hearings from taking place throughout the country.

The judicial panel overseeing the case against Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry postponed Wednesday's scheduled court hearing until April 3, without giving any reasons, a Supreme Court spokesman told CNN.

On March 9, Musharraf suspended Chaudhry, accusing him of misusing his powers. Chaudhry was subsequently placed under house arrest -- outraging many Pakistanis, as well as attorneys who took to the streets in protest, clad in suits and ties.

So far, 14 superior and civil court judges have resigned over the matter. On Tuesday, one of Pakistan's deputy attorney generals, Nasir Saeed Sheikh, also stepped down in protest.

Chaudhry was appointed to the court by Musharraf in 2005, but recently started exercising independence from the government in a number of cases involving the disappearance of terror suspects and human rights activists.

Chaudhry's temporary replacement, Justice Bagwan Das, arrived in Karachi on Wednesday and will head to Islamabad on Thursday for his swearing-in as Pakistan's acting chief justice.

The United States has tiptoed over the matter, partly because Musharraf is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Asked if Washington is concerned over the fallout over the judge's removal, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack pointed out that Musharraf "has himself said that this might have been handled differently."

He also noted that the Pakistani leader has vowed to abide by the decision of the judicial panel overseeing the case.

"We, ourselves, of course encourage the continued democratic development of Pakistan," McCormack said. "We believe that President Musharraf has made a commitment to change Pakistan, and we think that that is a positive thing.

"We're not going to dictate to him or anybody else, to the Pakistani people, exactly what those changes are going to be or specific steps that they might need to take."

Musharraf's critics accuse him of removing Chaudhry in an effort to intimidate the judiciary ahead of crucial elections and a vote in parliament to extend his rule later this year.

Last week, the Pakistani government banned a leading prime time television program on Pakistan's GEO-TV because of negative coverage of Musharraf's ouster of Chaudhry.

McCormack said the Pakistani leader has expressed regret for that crackdown.

"It is encouraging that President Musharraf has come out and said that, for example, the raid on the television station in Pakistan was unacceptable and that they're looking into exactly what happened," McCormack said. "He made it clear that journalists should be able to do their jobs. And that's important."

In London, two exiled Pakistani prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, plan to meet Wednesday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Pakistan and a joint strategy to put pressure on Musharraf's government.

Musharraf seized power in a 1999 military coup, ousting Sharif. Since then, dissent against his government has been rare. Both Sharif and Bhutto have been convicted of various crimes by Pakistan courts under Musharraf, and face arrest if they returned to Pakistan.


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Activists of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz torch a poster of Musharraf during a demonstration in Karachi, Monday.

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