Protesters have been beaten up by police with sticks, in the city of Karachi, the main city of Sindh province, as hundreds of lawyers and political activists began an anti-government protest march. (photo, from AFP)
Dozens of protesters were arrested by riot police, who also stopped cars and buses from collecting hundreds of lawyers assembled at the high court on Thursday. They were ready for the journey to Islamabad, the federal capital.
The lawyers are calling on Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, to reinstate judges sacked in 2007 by previous president Pervez Musharraf. They left the high court on foot and started their march with other anti-government protesters.
“We’ve started the march to achieve our goal”, said Munir Malik, a former president of the supreme court bar association and a protest organiser.
The demonstrators are scheduled to arrive in Islamabad on Monday, where they hope they will join thousands of other anti-government protesters for a rally outside the parliament.
“It is a test for the new government, as to whether it will be in a position to give people their democratic rights”, said Kamal Hyder, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Islamabad.“Across the country there has been a heavy clampdown by the security agencies in spite of the fact that the prime minister said that there would be no problem with the march as long as it is peaceful.”
The 1,500km-long march comes despite a ban on demonstrations in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Thousands of troops have been deployed there. In order to get around the ban, lawyers had been entering the Sindh High Court complex in Karachi in ones and twos since the morning.
Despite the ban, a group of Jamaat-e-Islami party activists managed to arrive near the court and a scuffle broke out with the police. The police used batons and sticks to beat back the protesters.
Later, as the protesters began marching down the main highway on the outskirts of the city, the police made further arrests. There were minor skirmishes and some of the marchers suffered slight injuries. The march was not allowed to proceed down the road.
Protesters also rallied in the cities of Quetta and Lahore.
Activists believe the ban on political gatherings is a bid to disrupt the rallies, which they are calling the “long march”. They have pledged that they will be peaceful.
Across the country on Wednesday, police rounded up about 300 people, including members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan’s main opposition party.On Wednesday, the leader of the PML-N and a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had called for people to “change the destiny of Pakistan” by attending the march.
Last year, the PML-N quit the cabinet in order to protest against the new civilian government’s failure to honour a deadline to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry, the former supreme court justice, and other judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.
Although Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari (photo, Sharif left and Zardari right, from aljazeera.net) had briefly allied in the campaign to force Mr Musharraf from the presidency, a power strugle between the two was triggered in February, when the country’s supreme court disqualified Nawaz Sharif from contesting elections.
Because of the ruling, Mr Sharif’s party was force out of power in Punjab, which placed the province under central government control.
However on Wednesday, in an apparent concession to Mr Sharif, Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, said that the government wanted federal rule over the province to end.
Mr Gilani said that the party that has the sufficient mandate to form the provincial government should take over.
Even though the PML-N doesn’t have a clear majority to run the provincial government alone, it has the most support in Punjab.
Many of the protesters are looking for the central government to relinquish its control over the province, said Raja Assad Hameed, of the Nation newspaper.
“They are coming to Islamabad to tell Zardari that the mandate in Punjab, the powerhouse of Pakistani politics, should be given back to the legitimate representatives of the people and that the governor’s rule should be lifted from Punjab”, he said.
“The situation could go anywhere from here ; the government has lost its credibility and popularity very prematurely.”