Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pakistan's "Long March"

ARRESTS of dozens of lawyers and opposition members, scuffles with police, and media frenzy marked the start of the lawyers-led ‘Long March’ from Karachi, which the opponents of government are already billing as the beginning of a decisive battle against the PPP-led government in Islamabad.

What initially looked like a poor show for a much-hyped start to the week-long protest march, immediately drew attention of the people across the country as the Karachi police came down heavily against unarmed lawyers and opposition supporters, beating many of them, and bundling several others in waiting police vans, to be taken to the nearby police station.

The eagerly waiting television cameras kept beaming the police high-handedness as young and old were mistreated in the name of enforcing the government’s overnight order of the imposition of Section 144, under which political rallies were banned.

The first visible crackdown was seen outside the Karachi Courts, from where several lawyers and their supporters were picked up by the police. Soon a similar action started near the Malir courts. The message from the authorities was clear: there was zero tolerance for supporters of the lawyers-led ‘long march’.

Among those rounded up in the initial phase included president of the Sindh High Court Bar Association Rashid Rizvi, former president of Supreme Court Bar, Munir A. Malik and many other senior leaders of the lawyers’ movement. A number of them were later set free, but only after the authorities were convinced that they have managed to foil the attempt by the opposition to form a procession for kicking off the campaign.

Dozens of lawyers and their supporters were also arrested in Hyderabad and adjoining towns. A number of relatively smaller political groups also sent in their supporters as a token representation at the starting point, but most of the leading members of the provincial wing of Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N were conspicuous by their absence. Some of their other party leaders claimed that the main leadership was determined to join the ‘long march’ when it enters Punjab.

Elsewhere in the country, many opposition supporters watched the live coverage of the event on private television channels throughout the day.

Some were disappointed at a less than expected turnout in Karachi. A few blamed the opposition parties for not sending in their supporters in support of the lawyers. However, many others in Lahore and other cities were still confident of the campaign picking up momentum in the next couple of days. A boost to the campaign was given by lawyers from Balochistan, whose group was being led by the maverick Supreme Court Bar chief, Ali Ahmed Kurd. He declared at the start of the rally in Quetta that this was the final phase of their two-year old campaign for reinstatement of judges sacked by former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf.

In Lahore another leading light of the lawyers’ movement, Chaurdhy Aitzaz Ahsan, played his role in building up the tempo by coming out to lead a protest rally. Aitzaz Ahsan declared that the raids and arrests in Sindh and Punjab were not going to prevent the long march from proceeding towards Islamabad. “Now I have no doubt that the sit-in (in Islamabad) is bound to take place,” he said.

However, in Islamabad senior government leaders seemed determined to prevent the ‘long march’ from coming anywhere near the federal capital. Thousands of police and paramilitary troops were being mobilised to block the march, even if it meant using all kinds of arm-twisting, a senior police official told Dawn. The police had already started impounding dozens of buses for its use, and large container trucks were being confiscated to be used for blockading all roads that lead to Islamabad.

The message was clear: even if the lawyers and opposition supporters managed to avoid arrest during their ‘Long March’ between Karachi and Rawalpindi, they will certainly not be allowed into the federal capital.

In a new twist to the developments, the interior ministry sent an official letter to Nawaz Sharif, warning him against the possibility of a “terrorist attack” on his person during the campaign. He and his brother Shahbaz Sharif were advised to take extra precautionary measures, with the federal government promising a “VVIP security” for the two Sharif brothers. The two Sharifs spent their day at their Raiwind Farm house, where the most significant meeting was with the PML-Q dissidents.

While ignoring the opposition’s campaign, senior government leaders in Islamabad remained busy in getting President Asif Zardari’s nominee Farooq Naek elected for the coveted post of Senate chairman. Brushing aside a last-minute pressure from the PML-Q to accept Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain as consensus candidate, the PPP-led ruling coalition got the law minister elected unopposed. However, as a compromise, PML-Q’s Jan Jamali was elected as deputy chairman of the upper house.

As victory celebrations began in the government camp, many ruling party MPs were trying to give the spin that the opposition’s protest campaign was destined to fail. A couple of them said had it not been for the overkill by the police, and the media’s projection of the arrests in Karachi, the campaign would have fizzled out on the very first day.

On the other hand senior opposition members, and those leading the lawyers’ campaign, were confident that in the next couple of days the protest campaign was bound to pick up momentum, and they were expecting it to turn into a huge show by the time the protesters reach Multan.

For either side the next 48 hours were crucial as they were to determine which way the wind was to blow in the days and months to come.

From here.

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