ISLAMABAD, Jan 26: The Chief Justice and six other judges of the Supreme Court refused to take a fresh oath of office today, defying an order issued by Pakistan's army ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf, reports AP.
The Army Chief ordered scores of judges to be sworn in again, this time under a provisional constitution that protects the military against legal action.
Seven of the 13 judges of Pakistan's Supreme Court refused. Their refusal means automatic removal as judges, said lawyers.
"Whatever has been done is in the best interest of the country and the nation," Musharraf told reporters following the swearing-in ceremony of the Supreme Court judges at the white marble presidency in the federal capital.
A new Supreme Court Chief Justice Ershad Hassan Khan was appointed, after the current Chief Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqi refused to take a fresh oath, said a court official, who didn't want to be identified by name.
Asma Jehangir, a lawyer and special United Nations rapporteur on arbitrary, summary and extrajudicial killings, said that Siddiqi is under house arrest. There was no immediate confirmation.
"The military rulers are doing their best to erode the independence of the judiciary," said Ms Jehangir, who also is the recipient of international human rights awards. "I salute those judges who have refused to take the oath."
The refusal of the judges represents the biggest challenge to date to the military's rule in Pakistan, which began on Oct 12 when the army threw out the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif.
When Musharraf suspended Pakistan's constitution, he imposed a provisional constitution, which enshrined emergency rule in Pakistan.
According to the provisions of emergency rule it is illegal to challenge any actions of the army.
By asking judges to be sworn in again under the provisional constitution, the army ensures that legal challenges to its rule will not be admitted in court.
"This is certainly the most major development since the military coup," said Abdul Hafiz Pirzada, a constitutional lawyer. "There was tension between the court and the chief executive," which is the title Musharraf has taken.
Pirzada did not elaborate.
However, there have been several legal incidents in recent weeks. The Supreme Court and provincial High courts have entertained petitions from ousted politicians, who are challenging army rule.
The Shariat Court has ruled that Pakistan's banking system is against the tenets of Islam and ordered the army government to impose a new system. Two weeks ago High Court Judge Shabir Ahmed refused to hear the criminal case of hijacking in southern Karachi against Sharif to protest the presence of intelligence agents and paramilitary soldiers in his courtroom.
The last time Pakistan's judges were asked to retake their oath of office under a provisional constitution was during the rule of Gen Mohamed Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan's previous military ruler. Zia ruled with an iron hand for 11 years until his death in a mysterious plane crash in 1988.
Those who defied Musharraf's orders immediately cease to be judges, explained Pirzada.
Meanwhile, the former Chief Justice who defied the army general said his loyalties are with Pakistan's original constitution.
In an interview at his home in the federal capital, surrounded by legal volumes, Siddiqi said his loyalty to the country's constitution was well known to the army chief, with whom he met on Oct 13 - the day after the coup.
'I told him then that I will work only under the constitution and he agreed with me,' said Siddiqi.
Under the rules Siddiqi is now no longer a judge.
But Siddiqi said he won't submit his resignation.
'I have not resigned. I have refused to take oath under the provisional constitution because it would mean that I am deviating from my earlier oath," he said. "I am absolutely satisfied. I have repeated this position a number of times."
Several lawyers expressed outrage at the army chief's orders.
'It's a coup against the judiciary,' said Fakharuddin Ibrahim, a constitutional lawyer and a former governor of southern Sindh province.
'When sensitive issues are being heard this order has been passed,' he said, referring to legal challenges to the army's rule in Pakistan.
On Jan 31, the Supreme Court was scheduled to begin hearing one challenge.