LAHORE Leaders of a Pakistani lawyers' movement served notice to the new coalition government it would hold a major protest on June 10 to champion the restoration of judges dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf last November.
"It is going to be a major milestone. It has been decided with a heavy majority to hold the long march," Aitzaz Ahsan, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told a news conference after a meeting of lawyers in the eastern city of Lahore.
Saad Rehman, a senior lawyer, said the date was set for June 10, but the route had still to be decided.
The lawyers movement coined the term "long march" for the motor processions from city to city organised last year to support chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the judge who became a cause celebre by resisting pressure from Musharraf to resign.
Chaudhry and fellow judges were later dismissed when Musharraf invoked emergency rule on November 3 to purge the courts, because he feared they could rule unlawful his own re-election in October by the outgoing parliament while still army chief.
"All of the lawyers' abilities and energy will be dedicated to this march now," said Ahsan, who is at odds with the leadership of his own Pakistan People's Party (PPP), heading the coalition, over its foot-dragging over the judges.
The coalition is already in danger of breaking up over the issue after the second largest party in the alliance withdrew its members from Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's cabinet, a little over six weeks after being sworn in.
Gilani has refused to accept the resignations from the nine ministers belonging to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N.
The PML-N has said it would continue to support Gilani's government on an issue by issue basis, but it has also backed the lawyers' plans to begin agitating.
The PPP wants to link the judges return to constitutional reforms, which could result in some judges being packed off to early retirement.
It has also argued that the legal implications of restoring the judges has to be fully assessed, and wants to accommodate the judges Musharraf appointed after carrying out his purge.
Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew in 1999, wants the judges brought back as a first step to forcing his usurper out of power.
The PML-N forged a post-election alliance with the PPP after defeating Musharraf's allies in an election in February.
The pact was founded on an agreement between Sharif and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari to bring back the judges within 30 days of forming a government.
Zardari insists he will honour the agreement, but his dallying has led to speculation that a secret deal has been worked out with Musharraf that would ultimately sideline Sharif.
Zardari, who took over leadership of the PPP after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December, has said he is trying his best to persuade the PML-N to withdraw its ministers' resignations.
(Reporting by Aftab Borka; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
(For a Reuters blog about Pakistan see blogs.reuters.com/pakistan)