Pakistan bans protests before big opposition rally

 Pakistani police officers stand guard next to the Punjab House in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, March 11, 2009. Pakistan banned protests in two provin...


Pakistani police officers stand guard next to the Punjab House in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, March 11, 2009. Pakistan banned protests in two provin...

Pakistan banned protests in two provinces and arrested scores of lawyers and opposition activists Wednesday ahead of planned rallies that could weaken the already-shaky rule of its pro-Western government.
The crackdown by police and intelligence agencies stands to damage the democratic credentials of the ruling party of President Asif Ali Zardari and stoke further anger at the government's one-year-old rule. The lawyers and opposition vowed to continue their protests.
"I cannot rest when Pakistan is being taken toward disastrous circumstances," Nawaz Sharif, the head of the largest opposition party told several thousands supporters at a rally in the Northwest Frontier Province. "We cannot compromise when all institutions are ruined and the system is on the verge of collapse."
The upheaval comes as nuclear-armed Pakistan is grappling to contain surging violence by al-Qaida and the Taliban and fix an economy that functions only because of support from international lenders. It could lead to a political deadlock and even some form of intervention by the country's powerful military, which has often seized power in the past following chaotic civilian rule.
Pakistan's feisty lawyers, Sharif's party and two other smaller groupings are demanding Zardari fulfill a pledge to restore a group of judges fired by former President Pervez Musharraf. Zardari is refusing to do so, apparently fearing they could try to limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him.
Last month, the Supreme Court banned Sharif and his brother from elected office, enraging the leader's followers and energizing the protest movement further.
The protesters have vowed to gather in cities around the country on Thursday before leaving for the capital, Islamabad, where they plan to stage a sit-in at the parliament building until their demands are met.
But officials banned public gatherings in both Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and Sharif's stronghold, and Sindh, home to the country's largest city of Karachi.
Punjab's ban will remain in force for three months and gives authorities the right to arrest any protesters, Rao Iftikhar, the home secretary in Punjab, said. Meanwhile, Sindh province Home Secretary Arif Ahmad Khan outlawed public gatherings of more than four people for 15 days.
The U.S., which supported Musharraf but is backing the civilian government, has yet to make any public statement on the crisis. Last week, Britain appealed for political unity, saying the bickering was distracting Pakistan from the "mortal threat" posed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.
A spokesman for Sharif's party, Sadiqul Farooq, said he received reports from party offices across the country that members were being arrested, but he had no accurate numbers. Munawar Hassan, a leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan party, said "nearly two dozen of our supporters have been detained."
Zardari was visiting Iran on Thursday. His spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said 18 people had been arrested and would be released once the situation calmed down.
In the Punjabi city of Multan, senior police officer Fayyaz Ahmad said 42 Sharif supporters were arrested and "would be dealt with according to the law."
On Monday, the country's security chief said the protesters were welcome to rally, but urged them not to gather in front of the parliament, suggesting an empty lot on the outskirts of the capital instead.
Aitzaz Ahsan, a protest leader, said he believed "hundreds" of lawyers had been arrested, but insisted the movement _ which helped bring down the government of Musharraf _ would not falter.
"How long can the state resist?" he told a local TV station. "We will keep on knocking on the door of Islamabad relentlessly."
Zardari is the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was widely praised as a democrat. He has repeatedly promised to implement her vision in the country of 170 million people.
Bhutto's and Sharif's parties were bitter rivals in the 1990s, a turbulent decade when both leaders served twice as prime minister without completing a term before Musharraf seized power.
The moves to arrest the protesters were reminiscent of crackdowns on the lawyers under Musharraf's rule and drew derision from some analysts.
"At the moment what we are witnessing ... indicates this government has shades of autocratic rule," said Zaffar Abbas, a prominent journalist and commentator.
Associated Press Writer Ashraf Khan contributed to this report from Karachi.

Updated : 2021-02-25 16:37 GMT+08:00