Pakistan bans protests, arrests activists

Authorities in Pakistan’s key Punjab province have banned protests and begun rounding up activists a day before a rally by lawyers that could challenge the year-old government, officials said on Wednesday.

Anti-government lawyers and opposition parties plan to launch a cross-country protest motor convoy, known as a long march, on Thursday.

”It has been done to maintain law and order, so from now there’s a ban on all sorts of processions, protests and congregations for one month,” senior Punjab Interior Department official, Farhan Aziz Khawaja, told Reuters.

The protesters vowed to press ahead with their plans peacefully. They are pushing for the reappointment of a former Supreme Court chief justice who then army chief and president Pervez Musharraf dismissed in 2007.

The lawyers, in league with opposition parties which can mobilise their supporters, pose a significant challenge to President Asif Ali Zardari, who has refused to reappoint the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The protesters’ convoy of cars and buses is due to set off on Thursday in the southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan and reach Punjab on Friday. They aim to begin a sit-in outside Parliament in the capital, Islamabad, on Monday.

The protest is one more problem for a civilian government led by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that took power a year ago and is struggling with economic and security crises.

It comes as the country’s two main parties are at loggerheads over a Supreme Court ruling last month that effectively barred former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from contesting elections.

Tariq Mehmud, a senior lawyer and protest organiser, said the ban on protests would not affect their plans.

”It seems the government is determined to stop the long march,” Mehmud said.

”Our plan is in tact. Let’s see what happens,” he said.

Mehmud also said police had turned up at his home in Islamabad before dawn, apparently aiming to detain him, but he had managed to slip away.

Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, chairperson of Sharif’s party, said he had been put under house arrest at his Islamabad home.

”Police arrived at my home at 3am and I’m told I have been detained under the maintenance of public order law,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Siddiq-ul-Farooq, a spokesperson for Sharif’s party, said scores of their workers had been detained across Punjab.

”We will remain peaceful and will peacefully defy the ban on the long march,” Farooq said.

Authorities routinely detain opposition leaders and activists before protests in an effort to stop them. Detainees are set free after political tension eases.

Sharif says Zardari was behind the court decision and has thrown his party’s support behind the lawyers’ protest, attempting to rally the public with a string of fiery speeches.

The government has threatened to prosecute opposition leader Sharif for sedition if violence erupts during the protest. It has also said the rally will not be allowed into central Islamabad but organisers can use open ground on the city’s outskirts.

Police were seen preparing shipping containers, which are used to block roads, in the city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, witnesses said. — Reuters

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