Pakistan police arrest protesters


Police in Pakistan detained scores of protesters in Karachi today as President Asif Zardari's government struggled to contain protests by lawyers and political activists who have started a four-day anti-government protest march.

Demonstrators were shown on Dawn Newstelevision being forced into police vans as they attempted to begin a four-day march on parliament to protest the government's refusal to reinstate judges sacked by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

The clash threatens Pakistan's year-old attempt at civilian rule, said Ali Dayan Hasan, the senior South Asia researcher at the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

Protesters have vowed to press ahead with the march onto Pakistan's parliament in defiance of bans and hundreds of arrests by a government that has come increasingly under fire from its critics.

The country's largest opposition party has joined forces with lawyers demanding an independent judiciary in a protest movement that threatens to weaken the year-old elected government, which the US is counting on to battle Taliban and al-Qaida militants operating in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Police rounded up around 300 political activists on Wednesday from cities around the country seeking to cripple the rally before it began. It also banned rallies in two provinces. Media reports the government planned to blockade the capital.

"Our long march will go ahead according to the schedule," said Naeem Qureshi, a prominent lawyer in Karachi, referring to the protest. He and others lawyers in Karachi were scheduled to leave for the capital Islamabad later Thursday in a motor convoy, where they hope to join thousands of other protesters for a rally at the parliament Monday.

The growing political unrest is raising the specter of a possible military intervention in a nuclear-armed nation prone to army coups. It could put Washington in a prickly position if the civilian government — which itself rose to power on the back of rallies and marches against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf — keeps clamping down on dissidents.

Human Rights Watch urged Pakistan to free those arrested.

"It's a disgrace for elected officials to mimic the discredited military government by using old and repressive laws to stifle political expression," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a researcher for the group.

Pakistan's lawyers are demanding that President Asif Ali Zardari fulfill a pledge to restore judges removed by Musharraf. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who briefly allied with Zardari during the campaign to force out Musharraf, supports the judges' restoration but also is furious over a Supreme Court decision barring him and his brother from elected office. After the ruling, the federal government dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Sharif's brother.

Sharif claims the ruling was politically motivated and has urged Pakistanis to join the protest march.

Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has cultivated ties with the U.S. and sought to rally Pakistanis behind the fight with Islamic extremists. Sharif is considered closer to Islamic parties and conservative factions less inclined to support the U.S. war effort.

Protesters have pledged a peaceful march, but Sharif has used words like "revolution" and other harsh terms in recent speeches, prompting the government to warn him against committing sedition.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman told reporters the rallies were banned to "avoid bloodshed in the streets." While acknowledging her party had staged similar rallies in the past, she insisted that "we never called to raise the flag of rebellion."

The ruling party has restored most of the judges fired by Musharraf, but a few, including a former Supreme Court chief justice, have not regained their seats.

Zardari is believed to fear that those judges could move to limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him that were dropped by Musharraf when the former general was seeking to forge a political alliance before last year's elections.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood avoided direct criticism of the Pakistani government on Wednesday, but said the US supported "freedom of speech, of expression, of assembly in Pakistan."