Despite Ban, Protests Begin In Pakistan

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A protest march is beginning throughout Pakistan and President Asif Ali Zardari is intent on stopping it. The march was originally planned by Pakistani lawyers demanding an independent judiciary and the reinstatement of the deposed supreme court chief justice. But in recent weeks it has been overtaken by the clash between Zardari and his main political rival.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. A protest is beginning throughout Pakistan today. It resembles demonstrations that once came against Pakistan's military ruler. But this time the target is his civilian replacement, President Asif Ali Zardari. The president is intent on stopping it and hundreds of people had been arrested. Now, this march was originally planned by Pakistani lawyers demanding an independent judiciary, but in recent weeks it's been overtaken by a clash between the president and his main political rival. NPR's Anne Garrels is covering this story from Islamabad. And Anne, we just mentioned hundreds of arrests. Is there really going to be a march?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, despite the obstacles, the legal community remains defiant and this morning the black-suited lawyers and oppositions activists began gathering in the south of the country; that's the starting point for the march. They're then going to move north, joining up with others along the way, assuming they can, eventually arriving in the capital on Monday. But in Karachi, police and lawyers are clashing. There have been more arrests. The police have stopped buses from moving. But the protestors are growing in numbers and one of the country's leading lawyers, Munir Malik, says the lawyers will walk if need be.

In Quetta, another southern city, the police actually haven't stopped the marchers and jubilant lawyers have set off. But the crunch is going to come as they head north closer to the capital, where the police fair have mobilized and have firm orders to stop them.

INSKEEP: So people are intending to drive, converge on the capital from different places; they say they'll walk if they have to. That does raise a question though about whether they are just fighting for an independent judiciary, which is a big issue there, or whether this is a battle between two popular politicians.

GARRELS: Well, it's basically turned into both. President Zardari has infuriated the legal community and others by backing off his promise to restore the popular chief justice Musharraf had removed. That's Pervez Musharraf, the former dictator. It's believed he fears that chief justice might nullify an amnesty agreement General Musharraf granted Zardari so he could return to the country without fear of prosecution on charges of corruption. Zardari further angered many by failing to rescind the president's extraordinary powers that Musharraf had taken for himself.

But yes, as you note, this has turned into a bitter political fight. It's intensified over the past couple of weeks when the Supreme Court banned his main rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, from holding office. Then Zardari imposed executive rule on the Punjab, where Nawaz Sharif's brother was a popular chief minister. Many believe Zardari was behind the Supreme Court decision, once again a question about an independent judiciary, so that Zardari could gain control of the Punjab. It's a real political prize.

INSKEEP: And is there any sign of a deal that might avert violence here?

GARRELS: Well, there are a lot of intense negotiations going on to broker some kind of reconciliation. Senior Pakistani politicians, foreign diplomats, army officials, they've all been meeting with government and opposition leaders. The U.S. ambassador met today with Nawaz Sharif, and this morning special envoy Richard Holbrook made a call to the prime minister. But so far there's no firm deal.

INSKEEP: Do you have any sense about whether these demonstrators have widespread public support, Anne Garrels?

GARRELS: I think it's fair to say they do, and surveys indicate that Zardari's popularity is plummeting, and a lot of that has to do with his fight with the lawyers. The issue of an independent judiciary here is a very emotional one. The chief justice who stood up to Musharraf's autocratic rule and then was fired by him is a real hero, and Zardari's crude crackdown on the lawyers and other activists looks a lot like the behavior of a military dictator. It's even brought condemnation from some key members of his own party.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anne Garrels in Islamabad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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