Pakistani authorities rounded up dozens of lawyers and opposition politicians ahead of the hearing.

 

More that 50 activists and parliamentarians mainly belonging to the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal religious alliance were taken into custody around midnight on Thursday in the capital and its twin city of Rawalpindi, the Dawn newspaper and other media reported.

 

Around 40 lawyers were also detained in the central city of Lahore where there were clashes with police on Tuesday in which several dozen people were injured.

 
Friday demonstrations
 
New protests were expected in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi; the police have now banned any assembly of more than five people in a public place.

 

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A senior interior ministry official said an additional 1,000 police officers have been called in for deployment to reinforce 3,000 already on duty in Islamabad.

 

Shahid Shamsi, a spokesman for Pakistan's main alliance of Islamic parties, said: "We will carry the holy book in our hands and assemble outside the Supreme Court building to offer Friday prayers and register our protest over action against the justice."

 

He said the government would be responsible for any trouble if it tried to keep the political leaders and workers from demonstrating.

 

Islamic alliance president Qazi Hussain Ahhmed was to lead the congregation near the parliament.

 

Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said the government would not allow anyone to disrupt normal life.

 

TV show banned
 

Pakistani authorities also banned a popular talk show on a private television news channel amid a flood of scathing media criticism over the issue.

 

GEO television's nightly current affairs show Aaj Kamran Khan key Saat (Today with Kamran Khan), was taken off the air on Thursday.

 

An international media watchdog condemned the banning of the GEO news programme, saying the rush to "roll back" press freedom in Pakistan was accelerating.

 

The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement released in New York said: "Under increasing political pressure at home and abroad, the Musharraf government is resorting to heavy-handed tactics in dealing with critics and the independent media."

 

The ban on GEO's show came two days after the Supreme Judicial Council cautioned broadcasters and press to refrain from indulging in a "media trial" on the issue.

 

The council also ordered the information ministry and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to advise media "not to arrange or produce talk shows and other similar programmes concerning issues pending before the council".

 

'Manhandled'
 

Further concerns have surfaced after reports Chaudhry was manhandled by police.

 

Police prevented Chaudhry from attending a hearing on his case on Tuesday at the Supreme Court. 

 

Newspapers said he was roughed up, and one, Pakistan's Nation, printed a photograph showing burly policemen bundling Chaudhry towards the open door of a government car, with one officer leaning on his head.

 

Javed Iqbal, the acting chief justice, has summoned several police officers to appear before him on March 19 to explain their alleged mistreatment of Chaudhry.

 

US 'concern'

 

Sean McCormack, a US state department spokesman, said the United States considers the arrest of Pakistan's chief justice and his treatment by the police "a matter of deep concern".

 

Pakistani lawyers torch posters of Musharraf
and chant anti-government slogans [AFP]
He said US and Pakistani officials had discussed the issue and that Washington are pressing for it be resolved openly in accordance with Pakistani law.

 

Musharraf on Thursday said he would accept any verdict by the council, which could include sacking Chaudhry.

 

At a public meeting in Gujranwala, in the eastern Punjab province, he said: "I promise to you that the judiciary will take [a] decision. We do not need to interfere in this."

 

"They can give whatever decision they like ... I will accept that."

 

The government has not made public any details of the complaints against Chaudhry and insists its decision to have a five-judge panel chaired by Iqbal examine the allegations is non-political.

 

Chaudhry has pursued several cases embarrassing to the government, and opposition parties claim authorities are seeking a more compliant judiciary ahead of parliamentary elections, due within a year.

 

Musharraf is also expected to seek re-election as president-in-uniform from the outgoing assembly.