Pakistan Arrests Hundreds From Opposition Parties

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 5 -- A government-led crackdown against the news media and the political opposition intensified here Tuesday, with hundreds of party workers arrested and television stations bracing for raids.

The crackdown came as Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, moved to limit the political fallout from his decision three months ago to suspend the nation's chief justice. Critics have accused the president of authoritarianism and said his tactics are an indication of his slipping grip on power.

The arrests were made early Tuesday, with police hauling away opposition party workers across Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, opposition leaders said.

Two of the largest opposition groups -- the Pakistan People's Party of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif -- each said hundreds of their workers had been taken into custody. A coalition of religious parties said it had lost at least 100 workers to the arrests. Those reports could not be independently verified.

"They want to terrorize the people," said Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, a spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party. "But they are doing all of this in utter confusion. This is the last flicker of a dying candle."

While the short-term detention of party workers has become relatively common, Ashraf said the government has indicated it intends to hold the workers for longer periods this time. He also said police were more brutal than usual in making the arrests Tuesday, kicking and dragging some of the workers.

Government officials said the arrests were made to preserve law and order, and they disputed the total number of people reportedly taken into custody.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's independent television stations continued to struggle with authorities over their right to cover the judicial crisis. The stations say they have been kept off the air in much of the country in recent days, but the government has denied accusations that it is blocking broadcasts.

On Monday the government announced tougher restrictions on the media, giving itself the authority to seize stations that violate regulations such as a ban on live broadcasts. Hamid Mir, Islamabad bureau chief for Geo TV, said the change is just the latest effort in a two-month-old intimidation campaign. Mir said that the stations are expecting government raids and that he has decided to move his family out of the country because he fears for their safety.

"They want to teach us a lesson," he said.

Mir called on the United States -- Musharraf's biggest international backer -- to take a stand against the president. "There is a clear crackdown on the Pakistani press," he said. "The U.S. must condemn it, and they must prove they are no longer supporting Musharraf's policies against Pakistan's media."

So far, Musharraf's moves have elicited only a lukewarm response from the State Department, with spokesman Sean McCormack saying Tuesday: "There have been advances in bringing greater freedoms, including greater freedom of the press, in Pakistan over the years under President Musharraf's government. There have been some openings in that regard. Certainly nobody would want to see those openings reversed."

In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, three U.S. lawmakers called on the Bush administration to take a harder line against Musharraf's tactics. "The national interests of the United States and Pakistan are both served by a speedy restoration of full democracy to Pakistan and the end to state-sponsored intimidation -- often violent -- of Pakistani citizens protesting government actions in a legal and peaceful manner," according to the letter, which was signed by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Musharraf has been under fire since March 9, when he suspended the nation's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, for alleged abuses of office. Critics have suggested the real reason for the suspension was that Musharraf feared Chaudhry could complicate the president's plans to be elected to five more years in office by a lame-duck parliament.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company