LAHORE // Hundreds of political activists and lawyers were arrested yesterday in an effort to thwart a cross-country march scheduled to begin today. The government outlawed anti-government demonstrations by lawyers and opposition parties in Islamabad, as well as in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, through which the rally is to proceed. Tens of thousands are expected to take to the streets in a move to persuade Asif Ali Zardari, the president, to reinstate several judges dismissed under the authority of Pervez Musharraf, the former president. The convoy of cars and buses, due to begin this morning in Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, are scheduled to reach Punjab, the stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, by tomorrow. The protest will conclude with a sit-in on Monday in Islamabad, where demonstrators have vowed to stay until their demands are met. However, with the clampdown on protests across the country, turnout may be significantly tapered, causing the movement to lose steam. Even evening street fairs celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed were scaled down markedly in an effort to prevent them from becoming political rally points. This struggle is now two years in the making. In March 2007, Mr Musharraf dismissed Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice at the time, and several judges, accusing them of misconduct after passing several rulings that cited government corruption. The disbandment of the judiciary sparked several months of uprisings, leading Mr Musharraf to declare a state of emergency and to suspend the country's constitution and parliament in Nov 2007. "Musharraf was already extremely unpopular with the masses and this topped it off," said Umbreen Javed, the chairman of the department of political science at the University of Punjab. "But President Zardari has not been a very popular president either since he took over, and this issue is a major point of contention for the people." Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N leader, is expected to join the crowd of protesters. Speaking before hundreds of supporters at a rally yesterday, he implored people not to allow efforts by the government to impede the long march hinder their hopes of "saving Pakistan". On Feb 25, a three-judge Supreme Court panel barred Mr Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, the former chief minister of Punjab, from elected office. The brothers have accused Mr Zardari of trying to clamp down on the opposition, reigniting tensions between the country's largest political parties. Nawaz Sharif said the Supreme Court is dominated by judges appointed by Mr Musharraf during the 2007 state of emergency, and it is Mr Zardari's obligation now to restore the original, and ultimately independent, judiciary. "These are the doings of General Musharraf," Mr Sharif said. "He is the one actually who dismissed all those judges, who refused to qualify them to contest the election of a president in uniform, who didn't permit anyone to contest the elections of the president or even the parliament."
In an interview with the official Associated Press of Pakistan, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, warned Mr Sharif not to use the march as an opportunity to incite a rebellion, threatening criminal charges should the gathering turn to chaos. "We will proceed against those who are inciting the masses to revolt at public gatherings in case of any damage to human life or property," Mr Malik told a news conference.
The lawyers and a league of opposition parties, pose a significant challenge to the civilian government of Mr Zardari, which has refused to reinstate Mr Chaudhry. A spokeswoman for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), headed by Mr Zardari, said Mr Chaudhry's only motive in this march is to destabilise the country. "The restoration of judges issue is a non-issue now because most have been reinstated and others retired," said Farzana Raja, the spokeswoman. The opposition "are talking about an individual. Iftikhar Chaudhry had the chance [to rejoin the judiciary], but he did not do it because he was playing into somebody else's hands."
Government officials claimed that the recent ban on public gatherings in Punjab is not in an effort to stifle the opposition, but rather, to maintain law and order following last week's deadly attack on a convoy carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team to the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore. At least 12 heavily armed assailants are believed to have been responsible for the attacks - all of whom remain at large.
"The government of Mr Zardari has been too busy rearranging the government of Punjab that they forgot about the security of the people of Pakistan," Mr Sharif said. However, the PPP has made a similar allegation against Mr Sharif, accusing him of putting his own political motives ahead of national stability and the fight against terrorism. Mr Sharif "always promotes and raises his voice for Iftikhar Chaudhry -for an individual", Ms Raja said.
"The whole world is under the threat of extremism and terrorism and rather than concentrating on that, he is talking about politics - for whom? One individual." email@example.com