Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pakistan arrests 100s of activists, bans rallies

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan arrested hundreds of opposition activists Wednesday and banned protests in two regions ahead of a planned rally outside Parliament that could weaken the already shaky rule of the country's U.S.-allied government.

The crackdown by police and intelligence agencies is likely to damage the democratic credentials of the ruling party of President Asif Ali Zardari and stoke further anger at the government's one-year-old rule. The opposition, along with lawyers spearheading the planned protest, vowed to press on.

"I cannot rest when Pakistan is being taken toward disastrous circumstances," Nawaz Sharif, head of the largest opposition party, told several thousand supporters at a rally in North West Frontier Province. "We cannot compromise when all institutions are ruined and the system is on the verge of collapse."

The upheaval comes as the nuclear-armed nation is grappling to contain surging violence by al-Qaida and the Taliban and fix an economy that functions only because of support from international lenders. It could lead to a political deadlock and even some form of intervention by the powerful military, which has often seized power in the past following chaotic civilian rule.

Pakistan's feisty lawyers, Sharif's party and two smaller groups are demanding Zardari fulfill a pledge to reinstate a group of judges fired by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007. Zardari is refusing to do so, apparently fearing they could limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him.

Last month, the Supreme Court banned Sharif and his brother from elected office, enraging their followers and energizing the protest movement further.

The protesters have vowed to gather in cities around the country on Thursday before leaving for the capital, Islamabad, where they plan to stage a sit-in at the Parliament building until their demands are met.

But public gatherings were banned in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and Sharif's stronghold, and Sindh, home to the country's largest city of Karachi, the home secretaries in both provinces said.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman, a top ruling party member, told reporters the bans were aimed at "avoiding bloodshed in the streets."

"Pakistan's constitutional and democratically elected government cannot allow the rule of law to be replaced by the law of the jungle," a statement issued by her office said.

Rao Iftikhar, the home secretary in Punjab, said around 300 political activists had been arrested there under a law that allows for six months' imprisonment. Past governments have often rounded up activists to weaken demonstrations and released them after a short time.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyers' movement leader, said he believed hundreds of lawyers had been arrested, but insisted the movement — which helped bring down Musharraf's government — would not falter.

"How long can the state resist?" he told a local TV station. "We will keep on knocking on the door of Islamabad relentlessly."

Zardari was visiting Iran on Wednesday. Meanwhile, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani met with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

The U.S., which supported Musharraf but is backing the current civilian government, has yet to make any public statement on the crisis. Last week, Britain appealed for political unity, saying the bickering was distracting Pakistan from the "mortal threat" posed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.

On Monday, the country's security chief said the protesters were welcome to rally, but urged them not to gather in front of Parliament.

Zardari is the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was widely praised as a democrat. He has repeatedly promised to implement her vision in the country of 170 million people.

Bhutto's and Sharif's parties were bitter rivals in the 1990s, a turbulent decade when both leaders served twice as prime minister without completing a term before Musharraf seized power.

The moves to arrest the protesters were reminiscent of crackdowns on the lawyers under Musharraf's rule and drew derision from some analysts.

"At the moment what we are witnessing ... indicates this government has shades of autocratic rule," Zaffar Abbas, a prominent journalist and commentator, told Dawn News television.

Also Wednesday, four people were killed in Pakistan's northwest after an attempt to assassinate a government official, police said.

Senior police official Safwat Ghayur said a gunman fired at provincial minister Bashir Bilour, missing him but killing a bystander. Police then chased the gunman and another man, one of whom threw a grenade that killed three other people. The two men then killed themselves in an explosion inside a house, Ghayur said.