Pakistani Police Intercept Protesters

Police arrested protest leaders Thursday and stopped hundreds of marchers from leaving Pakistan's largest city for a rally in the capital, underscoring the government's determination to squelch the demonstration. Video by AP
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 13, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 12 -- Police wielding long batons dragged anti-government demonstrators into black vans Thursday at a highway toll plaza outside the southern city of Karachi, where several thousand people were attempting to join a caravan heading for the capital, Islamabad, for a mass protest this weekend.

In a second day and night of actions aimed at quashing the protest, police detained more than 70 activists in Karachi, including well-known politicians and lawyers. They also halted a protest caravan from the southwestern city of Quetta as it attempted to enter Sindh province at midnight, greeting the chanting crowd politely but blocking its path with commando troops.

Despite the ongoing crackdown, opposition leaders said they would push ahead with plans to converge on Islamabad on Sunday and stage peaceful rallies to protest what they call dictatorial behavior by the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari, whose Pakistan People's Party came to power a year ago.

The protesters included lawyers who are demanding the restoration of dismissed senior judges -- including former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry -- and activists from the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother. It is the main rival to Zardari's party.

"The arrest of lawyers and politicians is condemnable, but the government cannot stop the long march," Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the national lawyers' movement, told journalists Thursday morning in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, the stronghold of the Sharifs' party. Ahsan said opposition leaders would stage a second nationwide march if the planned one was thwarted.

In a bid to resolve the accelerating crisis, Washington's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, spoke by phone late Thursday with Zardari in Islamabad. Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, traveled to Lahore to meet with Nawaz Sharif.

Pakistani television Thursday night quoted U.S. officials as saying that the protest march should be allowed in a democracy and that the partisan conflict in Pakistan was weakening the war against Islamist terrorism in the region.

Late Thursday, there was widespread speculation that, as a compromise gesture to Sharif, Zardari would lift the emergency rule imposed in Punjab several weeks ago. But analysts said he was unlikely to restore the dismissed judges.

The personal feud between Zardari and Sharif, whose families have competed for power for two decades, has erupted into a full-scale political war that threatens to destroy Pakistan's latest attempt at elected civilian rule. Just a year after Zardari's party replaced an unpopular military regime and agreed to share power with Sharif's party, the president is now being widely accused of autocratic behavior, with Sharif as his top accuser.

"Even in Pakistan's troubled history of democratic governments, it is rare to find the kind of open fascism we are seeing today," the News International newspaper said in its lead editorial Thursday. With the mass arrests of unarmed opponents, it said, Zardari has abandoned the "pretense of democratic practice" and reacted like "many bloodthirsty dictators."

In addition to facing diplomatic pressure from the United States, which supports Pakistan with huge amounts of military and economic aid, Zardari's government has reportedly been urged by senior army leaders not to risk a bloody confrontation with the public.

"We are inching toward a head-on collision, and Mr. Zardari is to blame. He could have reshaped our political culture, but instead he is destabilizing the nation," said Mushahid Hussain, a senator and former aide to Sharif. "Just a year ago, we believed it was the dawn of a new democratic era, but our leaders seem to be back in the old mind-set of tearing each other apart."

Still, there were contradictory signals from the government Thursday about how much dissent it would tolerate. Opposition and lawyers' groups held tumultuous rallies in several cities under police guard. Several of the arrested lawyers and politicians were released, and senior aides to Zardari have offered security services to the Sharif brothers during this weekend's march and protest.

While U.S. diplomats were trying to calm the political turmoil, a missile strike from a U.S. drone aircraft reportedly killed 12 to 14 people in northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border. Pakistani officials said the target was a training camp for Taliban fighters in the tribal area of Kurram. Such strikes are widely condemned in Pakistan, but the Obama administration has continued the Bush administration's policy of using drones to attack suspected terrorists and insurgents inside Pakistan.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company