ISLAMABAD // Authorities in Pakistan arrested at least 60 political activists in a crackdown aimed at thwarting plans to surround the country's parliament. The arrests took place in the southern city of Karachi overnight and outside the high court building today, where scuffles briefly broke out between police and protesters, witnesses and the city police chief Waseem Ahmad said. Pakistan's largest opposition party and two other smaller groupings have joined forces with lawyers demanding an independent judiciary in a protest movement that threatens to weaken the year-old elected government, which the US is counting on to battle Taliban and al Qa'eda militants operating in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Police rounded up around 300 political activists yesterday from cities around the country and banned rallies in two provinces, including Sindh where Karachi is located. Media reports said the government planned to blockade the capital from the weekend to stop protesters entering. "Our long march will go ahead according to the schedule," said Naeem Qureshi, a prominent lawyer in Karachi, referring to the protest.
He and others lawyers in Karachi were scheduled to leave for the capital Islamabad later today in a convoy of vehicles, where they hope to join thousands of other protesters for a rally at the parliament on Monday. The growing political unrest is raising the spectre 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 rallies and marches against the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf - keeps clamping down on dissidents.
Human Rights Watch urged Pakistan to free those arrested. "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, a researcher for the group. Pakistan's lawyers are demanding that the president, Asif Ali Zardari, fulfil a pledge to restore judges removed by Mr Musharraf. The opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who briefly allied with Mr Zardari during the campaign to force out Mr Musharraf, supports the judges' restoration but also is furious over a Supreme Court decision barring him and his brother from elected office.