Pakistan tries to derail popular cross-country protest
Authorities arrested hundreds of lawyers and activists and banned public gatherings in two provinces.
Pakistani authorities arrested hundreds of opposition activists and lawyers Wednesday in an apparent effort to stifle antigovernment momentum ahead of a lawyers' march on the capital.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The crackdown follows a ban on public gatherings in two provinces and a warning that opposition leaders could face sedition charges if serious violence erupts during the planned five-day march. Some opposition parties have piggybacked their political goals onto the lawyers' movement, which began in 2007 as a popular grass-roots drive for an independent judiciary.
The tough response reflects concern at the groundswell of discontent. Prolonged protest could further threaten the unpopular US-backed government, which is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency as well as revive a faltering economy.
Last month the political party led by popular opposition figure Nawaz Sharif, PML-N, threw its weight behind the lawyers' movement after a controversial Supreme Court ruling declared Mr. Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, ineligible from holding office. The brothers claim the verdict was directed by President Asif Ali Zardari, who heads the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Despite the crackdown, a leader of the lawyers' movement, Ali Ahmad Kurd, said the marchers remained uncowed, telling television network Geo that the "long march" would proceed as planned from the southern cities of Karachi and Quetta on Thursday.
From there, the protesters are set to reach the capital, Islamabad, Monday, where they have pledged to stage a sit-in outside the National Assembly until their demands are met.
Fight to restore judges
The lawyers' chief goal is to restore the remaining handful of 60 judges deposed by former President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf but not yet reinstated. In the lawyers' view these judges are independent-minded and therefore crucial to rule of law.
Key among these judges is Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the popular former chief justice who rose to national acclaim in March 2007 for presiding over cases that irked the government. These include an investigation into "missing people" who had allegedly been kidnapped by Pakistan's intelligence agencies in connection with the US-led "war on terror."
Mr. Chaudhry's suspension sparked protests across the country, principally among the middle class, lawyers, and students. Though he was reinstated in July 2007, upon the orders of the Supreme Court, he and the other judges were deposed once again when Mr. Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November of that year.
Since the election of a democratic government in February 2008, the ruling PPP has signed three separate accords with other parties to restore the judiciary to its status before Musharraf's six-week state of emergency, but has yet to do so.
Though the majority of the 60 judges have taken fresh oaths, Zardari is thought to be unwilling to restore Chaudhry for fear that the former chief justice will reopen corruption cases that have surrounded Zardari since the 1990s.