Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pakistani Police Arrest Hundreds Of Activists
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Pakistani Police Arrest Hundreds Of Activists
Some Fear Political Conflict Could Destabilize Government

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 12, 2009; A08

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 11 Pakistani authorities arrested hundreds of political activists and banned public gatherings in two provinces Wednesday as President Asif Ali Zardari attempted to squelch a massive protest march organized by a coalition of opponents that includes lawyers and a former prime minister.

The march, slated to begin Thursday, was originally planned by Pakistani lawyers as a peaceful action to demand the reinstatement of the deposed Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. But in recent weeks it has been overtaken by the clash between Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, and the rival Pakistan Muslim League faction led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz.

In scenes reminiscent of repression under Pakistan's former military regime, television footage Wednesday showed activists being dragged into police vans, even as major opposition leaders addressed boisterous rallies in several cities.

Many Pakistanis said they feared the deepening conflict could bring the year-old civilian government to the brink of collapse, and some said it could revive the specter of army intervention in the nuclear-armed nation of 172 million, which recently emerged from military rule.

Others expressed concern that the personal conflict between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif could distract the nation's attention from more urgent issues, especially the growing menace from violent Islamist groups and the current effort to negotiate peace agreements with them.

"The whole nation is being harmed by this power struggle," said Tariq Mohammed, 35, a bakery worker. "Mr. Zardari is Pakistan's leader, and he should behave like one. If there are protests and repression, the economy will suffer, and more people will lose their jobs, and it will increase sympathy for those who believe in extremism."

All this week, Sharif has been addressing supporters at large rallies across the country, exhorting them to take to the streets and carry out a "revolution" against Zardari. Sharif accuses Zardari of being more dictatorial than retired army Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan from 1999 until last year. "We can change history in seven days," Sharif told a cheering crowd Thursday in Abbotabad, a city in northwestern Pakistan. "We cannot rest while Pakistan is being led toward disaster. The future is bleak, and the constitution is being violated. The whole country is in the process of disintegration."

In response to Sharif's calls, officials ordered a nationwide crackdown aimed at preventing marchers from reaching their planned destination, the capital. Cordons of police and barricades blocked major roads. Dozens of senior figures in Sharif's Muslim League party and in the legal community were placed under house arrest. Others fled their homes and hid from the authorities.

Government officials said they had no choice but to stop the march, blaming Sharif for inciting the public to violent rebellion as a means to seize power, and warning that terrorists might infiltrate the demonstrations. However, they said they were still open to reconciliation.

"No democratic government likes to impose restrictions, but we were pushed to the wall. This was a last resort," Information Minister Sherry Rehman told journalists here Wednesday. "We are trying to resolve things through dialogue, but open rebellion is not acceptable. We cannot allow the loss of life and property."

In a last-ditch attempt to preclude a violent confrontation, senior Pakistani politicians, foreign diplomats and army officials met with government and Muslim League leaders, urging reconciliation. There was an effort to persuade Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani to lift emergency rule in Punjab province, which was imposed by Zardari several weeks ago, but no immediate solution seemed likely.

The political contretemps has marred efforts by the Pakistani lawyers' movement to focus on the need for an independent justice system, especially the reinstatement of Chaudhry, who was fired by Musharraf two years ago. Despite the government crackdown, leaders of the lawyers' movement said they would continue with plans for a peaceful march.

"As far as we are concerned, the issue is simple. We are struggling to restore an independent judiciary, as we have been struggling for two years," Ali Ahmed Kurd, a leader of the lawyers' movement, said by telephone from the southwestern city of Quetta, where he plans to lead a protest caravan to Islamabad. "Without that, there is no guarantee of democracy."

This year's conflict is the latest iteration of a family drama that has played out over decades, pitting the Sharifs against the Bhuttos; Zardari is the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The most recent spark came last month when the Supreme Court -- dominated by judges named by Musharraf -- ruled in a decade-old case that Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, then chief minister of Punjab province, should be disqualified from holding political office.

Zardari immediately removed Shahbaz Sharif from his post and imposed federal rule over the populous and influential province, long a stronghold of the Muslim League.

The move has been extremely unpopular with the public and has badly damaged the president's credibility.

"It's mind-boggling. Zardari seems to view the affairs of state as wheeling and dealing, rewarding cronies and punishing enemies," said Talat Masood, a retired army general. "If he wants to be a dictator, he is sadly mistaken because the army is not going to be behind him. He is on a suicide mission."

The controversy has come just as the government is trying to cement peace agreements with Islamist extremist groups in several regions of northwestern Pakistan, a controversial and delicate effort that could easily collapse. Supporters say the deals are needed to restore peace and normalcy to areas that have been battered by terrorist attacks, while critics say such cease-fires could allow radical Islamist rule to spread.

Last week, a squad of heavily armed men opened fire on a Sri Lankan cricket team in the city of Lahore, killing six people. On Wednesday, two suicide bombers in the northwestern city of Peshawar attempted to assassinate a senior provincial official, Bashir Bilour. He survived, but the bombers detonated themselves and killed two other people.

"These agreements are at a critical phase, but our top national leaders are trying to settle scores and the nation's attention is being diverted by this squabble," said Mahmoud Shah, a retired army official and expert on the volatile northwest. "This confrontation can definitely affect the war on terror."


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