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Huge Welcome for Suspended Judge Could Mean Trouble for Pakistan President

Pakistan's chief justice was cheered by thousands of supporters in the eastern city of Lahore as he took his challenge to President Pervez Musharraf to the people. Mr. Musharraf suspended the judge in March, and has faced growing public protests ever since. VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad.

Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Lahore to cheer on the former chief justice, Iftakhar Mohammed Chaudhry. They threw flowers in the path of his motorcade, and banged drums to welcome him.

Addressing a crowd of lawyers outside the city's High Court building, Chaudhry urged his supporters to continue their fight to protect the country's independent judiciary.

He says any country based on dictatorship instead of the rule of law inevitably destroys basic rights.

Chaudry did not specifically mention the military-backed government of President Pervez Musharraf, who suspended the judge in March for alleged abuse of power. Nevertheless Chaudry's speech is widely seen here as a direct challenge to the president's authority.

Chaudry took over as chief justice in 2005 and has ruled against the Musharraf government in several high-profile cases.

His supporters insist his firing was to silence the country's independent judiciary before a possible constitutional challenge to the president's re-election later this year.

Massive protests have been held almost weekly in major cities across Pakistan since the suspension. Chaudry is appealing his removal, and a judicial panel is reviewing the case.

On Saturday, President Muhsarraf warned his opponents not to politicize the issue.

Nevertheless the rally in Lahore was by far the largest in several weeks, and is dominating headlines throughout the country. The rally was blacked out of state-owned television, but was shown on private channels.

Political analysts say the enormous turnout suggests the president faces an uphill battle as he tries to defuse the crisis.

Lahore is widely considered the country's unofficial political capital.

It is also President Musharraf's main political base, and experts warn that if he loses backing there, he could be in serious trouble in this year's national elections.