Pakistan police baton-charged activists and manhandled dozens into vans in Karachi on Thursday, as scores defied the government to launch a mass protest that has thrown the country into crisis.
Lawyers in black suits and opposition party activists carrying flags and punching their fists in the air marched in Pakistan’s biggest city of Karachi, demanding that embattled President Asif Ali Zardari reinstate sacked judges.
Organisers hope that hundreds of thousands of lawyers, opposition supporters and civil activists will join a four-day convoy on the 1 500km route from Karachi to Islamabad, where it is supposed to arrive on Monday.
In the third such annual march in Pakistan, the protesters want Zardari to act on a promise to reinstate judges after former military ruler Pervez Musharraf sacked around 60, including the Supreme Court chief justice in 2007.
Main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, locked in a showdown with Zardari, has urged the masses to rise up against the weak civilian government, which is struggling with political crisis, economic meltdown and Islamist violence.
A nervous government banned all protests in Sindh, the province of Karachi, and Punjab, the country’s most important political heartland, and security forces guarded key installations amid fears of violence.
Protesters in Karachi chanted “Go, Zardari, Go” and “New Menace, Zardari” as riot police wearing helmets and carrying batons bundled more than 35 people into waiting prison vans outside the Sindh high court, witnesses said.
Among those detained were Ghafoor Ahmed, vice president of Pakistan’s biggest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the president of the Karachi bar association, Mohammad Ali Abbasi.
About 100 lawyers left the Sindh high court, surrounded by riot police and armed paramilitary reinforcements, to march to the mausoleum of the country’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, from where they will leave the city.
“Arrests cannot scare us. We will stage the march and reach Islamabad to restore the independent judiciary,” said Muneer Malik, a leading lawyer.
Witnesses said police barricaded entry and exit points in Karachi, and diverted traffic. Paramilitary Rangers were also guarding diplomatic missions, Western eateries, government buildings and shopping centres.
Hundreds of activists have been detained in the run-up to the protest and US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the clampdown as endangering the country’s transition to democracy.
‘Stifling political expression’
“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, senior South Asia researcher at HRW.
Commentators say it is impossible for the government to enforce the ban on public gatherings.
“We will not allow people to disrupt law and order,” Wassem Ahmed, Karachi city police chief, told reporters.
“We have orders not to take action against lawyers if they remain peaceful,” he added.
The government this week threatened to charge Sharif with sedition for inciting public rebellion after the Supreme Court disqualified him in late February from contesting elections.
Zardari and Sharif have long fought over the future of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key US ally in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda militancy.
Protests in 2007 ultimately led to Musharraf’s resignation and patience is running out with the new civilian government, more than a year after parliamentary elections and six months after Zardari took office.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz quit the Cabinet last year to protest against the government’s failure to honour a deadline for reinstating the sacked judges.
The biggest party in the government, the Pakistan People’s Party of Zardari’s assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto, has stalled over disagreements. — AFP