The Pakistani government threatened on Monday to prosecute opposition leader Nawaz Sharif for sedition if violence erupts at an anti-government protest campaign due to begin later this week.
Political tension is rising as nuclear-armed Pakistan is reeling from a militant attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team last week and as its economy is being kept afloat with an International Monetary Fund loan.
A cross-country ”long march” protest is due to begin on Thursday and to reach Islamabad next Monday and Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said opposition leaders would face sedition charges if serious violence erupted.
”If in this long march, any death takes place or anyone’s property is damaged … then those who are bearing the flag of sedition or have borne it, then a police compliant will be registered,” Malik told a news conference.
Earlier, Malik read out sections of the Constitution defining sedition and several excerpts from Sharif’s speeches.
”The section [of the Constitution] which I mentioned, I think we may have to invoke if there is any death, any killing,” he said.
Opposition to President Asif Ali Zardari is coalescing around a demand for an independent judiciary.
Sharif and other political opponents are set to join lawyers demanding the restoration of a former chief justice of Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, sacked by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2007.
The protesters plan a sit-in outside Parliament in Islamabad, raising the prospect of clashes with the police.
The protest comes as the country’s two main parties are at loggerheads over a Supreme Court ruling last month that effectively barred former prime minister Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from contesting elections.
Sharif, who says Zardari was behind the court decision, has delivered a string of fiery speeches in recent days calling on his supporters to defy the government and join the long march.
Malik also said he was requesting the protest organisers not to bring their rally into the centre of Islamabad, suggesting an open ground on the city’s outskirts would be a suitable venue.
Shahbaz Sharif, who lost his job as chief minister of Punjab province last week because of the Supreme Court ruling, dismissed Malik’s warning and said the long march protest would be peaceful.
Pakistani stocks ended 1,5% lower on Monday as cautious investors sold shares on worry about political instability, dealers said. The main Karachi index has lost 3,5% this year after a 58,3% fall in 2008. — Reuters