President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Monday accused opponents of using his ouster of the chief justice to conspire against him.
Lawyers and opposition parties have marshaled growing demonstrations against Musharraf since he suspended the head of the Supreme Court on March 9. A key US ally in its war on terrorism, Musharraf also faces a growing challenge from Islamic militants. Some commentators predict his nearly eight years in power are nearing their end.
In a defiant speech Monday, Musharraf defended his government's record and accused unidentified opponents of hijacking a purely legal issue allegations that Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry abused his office for their political ends.
"They are conspiring against me and want to incite the people," Musharraf told hundreds of supporters at a rally of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party in the northern town of Mansehra, broadcast live on state TV.
"That will be a day of grief for me if these lies and deception triumph over truth and reality ... That will be a very sad day for Pakistan and the point where I will cry," he said.
He insisted the party could still win year-end parliamentary elections.
Critics accuse the military-dominated government of trying to dispose of an independent-minded chief justice ahead of a flurry of expected legal challenges to Musharraf's planned bid for a new five-year presidential term this fall.
A series of protests timed to coincide with hearings in Chaudhry's case boiled over into violence earlier this month, when battles blamed largely on a pro-government party left more than 40 people dead in Karachi and prompted a one-day national strike.
The Supreme Court on Monday resumed hearing a petition brought by Chaudhry challenging his suspension. The hearings have put on hold the work of a judicial complaints panel that in March began investigating the allegations that Chaudhry had abused his position.
In a possible setback to the government, presiding Judge Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday rejected Monday the argument of state lawyers that the panel had all the powers of a full court and could therefore consider Chaudhry's objection itself.
"For a forum to carry out judicial proceedings doesn't make it a court," Ramday said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan summoned a senior British diplomat to make a "strong protest" over comments by its ambassador that the Commonwealth of former British colonies wanted Musharraf to separate the offices of president and army chief by the end of 2007.
Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said the comments were "unacceptable and unsuitable and tantamount to interference in Pakistan's internal affairs ... and should not be repeated again."
Laura Davies, acting embassy spokeswoman, said High Commissioner Robert Brinkley had only restated, in response to a journalist's question, recommendations agreed on by the Commonwealth heads of government in 2005, including Pakistan.
"It is very important that we should be having this debate about democracy in Pakistan," Davies said.
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