/ 13 March 2009

Pakistan extends crackdown against activists

Pakistan extended a crackdown against activists on Friday, banning rallies and arresting scores of lawyers and party workers in North West Frontier Province ahead of planned mass protests.

Political opposition activists and lawyers have vowed to reach the capital Islamabad by Monday from across the country in protest marches to demand President Asif Ali Zardari act on promises to reinstate sacked judges.

Main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a vehement Zardari critic, has urged the masses to rise up against the civilian government, which has failed to stem a political crisis, economic meltdown and Islamist violence.

Islamabad has tried to head off protests with its most stringent crackdown since winning elections more than a year ago to replace ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf, sparking concern from Western allies about possible violence.

North West Frontier Province, which borders war-torn Afghanistan, handed down orders at midnight banning public gatherings of more than four people for a month — following similar orders in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

”We have imposed Section 144 in the district on the orders of the provincial Interior Ministry,” a district coordination officer, Sahib Zada Anis, told reporters in the provincial capital Peshawar.

Intelligence officials said more than 200 people, including prominent lawyers and local opposition party leaders, had been forcibly rounded up or placed under house arrest since early Friday in North West Frontier Province.

Most activists and lawyers went into hiding, staying away from their homes and offices in order to evade arrest, just as they had done in other areas of Pakistan.

Those targetted included members of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), the second largest party in the country, the main religious party Jamaat-i-Islami and followers of former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan.

”More than 100 party leaders and workers were arrested in the province and police are raiding houses of party leaders and activists,” said Arshad Qureshi, PML-N spokesperson in North West Frontier Province.

United States President Barack Obama has shifted Washington’s focus in the ”war on terror” to South Asia and the prospect of mass public unrest will only further destabilise the key US ally battling Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.

Senior US diplomats have personally urged political leaders in Pakistan to avoid violence amid growing political agitation.

”We wanted just to make sure and make clear to everyone that peaceful, democratic activity needs to take place in Pakistan. Violence is something we don’t need,” State Department spokesperson Robert Wood told reporters.

Police stopped one of Pakistan’s best-known lawyers, Ali Ahmed Kurd, the president of the national Supreme Court bar association, from entering Sindh en route to join marchers hoping to head for Islamabad.

”We are calling off our march for the moment and going back but will try to reach Islamabad by other routes and appeal to all Pakistanis to reach Islamabad in groups or as individuals by any possible means,” he told reporters.

In the Punjab city of Multan, police said they had filed complaints against 150 lawyers for defying a ban on rallies, but made no arrests.

Multan bar association president Mehmood Ashraf Khan said lawyers had been forced to abandon their original plans after the government crackdown and would instead march to Islamabad from their home cities.

Hundreds of demonstrators have been rounded up since Wednesday and police baton-charged protesters in the southern city of Karachi on Thursday. — AFP