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Pakistani judges still in house arrest

One of 11 ousted under Musarraf's emergency rule is outraged Western allies don't speak up.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A month after emergency rule was imposed, the gate to deposed Supreme Court Judge Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday's house remains locked. Five officers stand sentry outside, allowing him to leave only on Fridays to pray at a mosque under police escort.

"I'm being held here as a prisoner," Ramday, 62, told the Associated Press by telephone from his residence in Lahore.

Pounded by criticism at home and abroad after his Nov. 3 suspension of the constitution, President Pervez Musharraf has started to redeem himself in Western eyes by ceding control of the army, promising to lift the emergency, and pledging free and fair elections.

But 11 judges who could have derailed his plans to prolong his eight-year rule remain under house arrest.

They have been replaced by more pliant justices who rubber-stamped Musharraf's reelection as president. Dozens more high-court judges who refused to take a new oath of office have been sacked.

Opposition parties, who say the moves toppled the one pillar of the state that has shown signs of independence, now are threatening to boycott the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections.

"The act of dismissing 50 judges in one go was the biggest blow the judiciary has ever known in Pakistan," former Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah wrote in yesterday's Dawn newspaper. "Now the president has nothing to fear from the judiciary."

But there has been little outcry from Pakistan's Western allies.

International rights groups have taken up the cause of the judiciary, and the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies has suspended Pakistan, expressing concern over the independence of the judiciary. But it made no explicit demands beyond the conduct of free and credible elections.

U.S. officials have repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether the judges should be reinstated, and President Bush last week described Musharraf, a key ally in the war on terror, as "a person who has done a lot for Pakistan democracy."

The response from foreign governments rankles Ramday, a judge for 19 years, who regards himself as a rightful member of the high court.

"I'm surprised at the governments and the administrations who claim to be leaders of the civilized world and leaders of freedom and democracy. I can't reconcile to this, that nobody uttered even a single word on judges being dismissed, and not just that, judges being held in custody.

"Can you imagine a U.S. Supreme Court judge being held in custody only because he thought he would like to decide a case in the manner his conscience dictated?"

Ramday declined to say how the court would have ruled in Musharraf's election case, but he hinted strongly that proceedings were not going in the president's favor. "I think they knew the weakness of their case," he said, "and they reacted - and reacted very violently."

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, denies it was about his personal ambitions. He cited the threat posed by Islamic militants and accused the judiciary of "working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism."