Media outlets reported that Pakistani police launched a crackdown on Wednesday, arresting dozens of opposition activists and lawyers and forbidding demonstrations on the eve of the Long March. According to Dawn newspaper, “Thirty five political activists and lawyers were arrested in Islamabad during raids launched overnight and continuing beyond daybreak.” [News agencies did differ on the numbers of those arrested, with the NY Times reporting that an “estimated 300” activists were detained.]
Those rounded up include members of Nawaz Sharif’s opposition party PML-N. A senior police official told the AFP, “The government has provided lists of people to police and raids are being made to arrest them.” Other police sources told news agencies that a top PML-N figure, Raja Zafarul Haq, was placed under house arrest last night, and Dawn added, “Police dressed in civilian clothes attempted to arrest lawyers’ movement leader Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan from his residence early Wednesday morning but he was not present at the time.” The news agency noted, “Many lawyers and MPs have gone into hiding to avoid detention, and were unreachable by telephone at their homes and offices. Police also searched in vain for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who lives just outside the capital.” [Image from the AP]
BBC World radio did manage to interview Aitzaz Ahsan [you can hear the soundbite here], who was on the phone from an undisclosed location, confirming that police had raided his house to arrest him while he wasn’t there. Ahsan, who is not only a leading figure in the lawyers’ movement but a long-time member of the PPP, told the news agency that he was “not in confrontation with the party, but with people who are not prepared to redeem the pledge of the late Benazir Bhutto,” as well as the pledge by President Zardari to reinstate the judges, a promise he made last August.
According to the NY Times, “The government clampdown came after President Asif Ali Zardari introduced executive rule in Punjab province, Mr. Sharif’s stronghold. Citing security concerns, authorities have banned public gatherings in Punjab and Sindh provinces, as well as Islamabad,” but not yet in the NWFP, where Nawaz held a rally on Wednesday, urging supporters to join the Long March to Islamabad in order to “save Pakistan.” He asserted, “We can save it even in three days.” GEO News quoted him telling the Abottabad rally, “Today is a defining moment in Pakistan’s history. We can change the destiny of this country. Pakistan stands at a crossroads today and it is your duty to save it.” Earlier, his brother and former chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, stated, “If this [civilian] government bans political gatherings, then I don’t see how it is different from the military regime of Gen. Musharraf.”
Section 144, banning protests and marches, was imposed in Punjab and Sindh for three days and 15 days effectively. Nazim Lahore, Mian Amir Mehmood told Dawn,
This decision was taken because the government does not want large gatherings in Lahore in connection with the long march. As authority, I have approved the 144 section in Lahore…Our main concern is public safety. That is why this step was taken, we are ensuring to keep the law and order situation under control. The Lahore police has sufficient manpower for implementing this and are very capable of handling such a situation.
This is not the first time the government has attempted to “ensure law and order” in the past week. Last Monday, Zardari issued a decree to establish mobile courts that could adjudicate on minor offenses on the spot. According to the BBC News, the government said the purpose of the courts was to deliver quick justice “at the doorstep” in remote areas. “Provincial governments would have been authorized to ‘appoint as many persons as they thought fit’ to act as magistrates to head them,” noted the BBC. Opposition parties, not surprisingly, promptly condemned the decree, saying the mobile courts would instead be used to target activists and lawyers during the Long March. The mobile courts decree was subsequently dropped two days later, a decision “taken principally because of sustained political pressure against it at a time of increased tension between the government and opposition,” noted the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan.
Meanwhile, news agencies today reported the PPP and the PML-Q are likely to form a coalition government in Punjab. The announcement is expected to be made upon President Asif Ali Zardari’s return from his Iran tour, noted The News. The news agency added, “A few days ago, PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi had demanded of the President and Prime Minister the posts of Chairman and Deputy Chairman in Senate in exchange of their support for a PPP candidate as Punjab’s chief minister.” The coalition announcement, while not surprising given how quickly parties make and break political alliances, will not be a popular development. According to several analysts and pundits, the PPP orchestrated last week’s Supreme Court decisions so that the Long March would not have the full backing of the Punjab provincial government. However, the Court’s rulings, that essentially pushed the Sharif brothers out of power, only garnered them further support, particularly in their stronghold of Punjab province. Not only that, but the development also revitalized support for the Long March and the overarching lawyers’ movement.
Given today’s developments, expect to see a lot more support for the opposition and the Long March, not just from lawyers and opposition activists, but from people who are unhappy with the country’s direction under Zardari and the deteriorating economic, political and security situations. The wounds from Musharraf’s emergency rule are still raw in Pakistan, and recent developments stand in stark contrast to the government the PPP promised when they were elected last year. Although Zardari has often said that “democracy is the best revenge,” his recent policy decisions instead show that democracy can be the worst revenge.
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