Islamabad:Cheering opposition activists and lawyers set off for the Pakistani capital Thursday vowing to stage a sit-in outside the parliament building, defying a government ban on protests and hundreds of arrests nationwide.
With the showdown threatening to destabilize the country’s one-year-old democratically elected government at time of rising militant violence, US Ambassador Anne Patterson met with top opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in a bid to resolve the crisis, a Sharif spokesman said.
Former prime minister Sharif and the country’s lawyers’ movement are demanding President Asif Ali Zardari fulfill a pledge to restore independent-minded judges removed in 2007 by former president Pervez Musharraf whom some believe could be hostile to Zardari.
Sharif is also furious over a Supreme Court decision last month that barred him and his brother from elected office. After the ruling, the federal government dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Sharif’s brother, stoking popular anger at Zardari.
The lawyers, Sharif’s party and other small groupings plan to converge on the parliament building in Islamabad on Monday from cities across the country and remain there until their demands are met. The government is trying to stop them from leaving their home cities. It has banned protests in much of the country and arrested more than 360 activists.
Despite the crackdown, several hundred political party workers set off for Islamabad from the southern cities of Quetta and Karachi in convoys of buses and private cars, waving flags and cheering.
“God willing, we will achieve our target and we will go on a sit-in ... until the day when the judges under the chief justice Chaudhry Iftikhar are restored,” said Ali Ahmad Kurd, a leader of the lawyers in Quetta.
Earlier in Karachi, police arrested around 60 activists around the city and outside the high court, where they were planning to leave for Islamabad. Scuffles briefly broke out between police and protesters, witnesses and city police chief Waseem Ahmad said.
The arrests reminded many Pakistanis of similar moves against many of the same activists by Musharraf in 2007 clampdowns that dramatically reduced his popularity, ushered in the new government, and contributed to his ouster the following year.
Sharif spokesman Sadiqul Farooq said US diplomat Patterson was “trying to get things resolved” between Sharif and the government.
The US Embassy said it does not comment on the ambassador’s meetings, but foreign help in resolving political disputes in Pakistan has been common in the past.
The growing political unrest is raising the specter of a possible military intervention in a nuclear-armed nation prone to army coups. It could put Washington in a prickly position if the civilian government which itself rose to power on the back of the rallies and marches against Musharraf keeps clamping down on dissidents.
Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has cultivated ties with the US and sought to rally Pakistanis behind the fight with Islamic extremists. Sharif is considered closer to Islamic parties and conservative factions less inclined to support the US war effort.
Protesters have pledged a peaceful march, but Sharif has used words like “revolution” and other harsh terms in recent speeches, prompting the government to warn him against committing sedition.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman told reporters the rallies were banned to “avoid bloodshed in the streets.” While acknowledging her party had staged similar rallies in the past, she insisted that “we never called to raise the flag of rebellion.”
The ruling party has restored most of the judges fired by Musharraf, but a few, including a former Supreme Court chief justice, have not regained their seats.
Zardari is believed to fear that those judges could move to limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him that were dropped by Musharraf when the former general was seeking to forge a political alliance before last year’s elections.