Protests Direct Challenge To Pakistan's President

Protesters in Pakistan are trying to reach the capital Islamabad, but are being stopped by police. They are demonstrating against recent moves by President Asif Ali Zardari intended to neutralize his chief political opponents. As the protest gains momentum, it is now seen as a direct challenge to Zardari's government.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The political crisis in Pakistan is growing worse. Anti-government demonstrators trying to reach the capital of Islamabad are being stopped by Pakistani police. They are demonstrating against recent moves by President Asif Ali Zardari intended to neutralize his chief political opponents. And they are calling for an independent judiciary. As the protest has gained momentum, it is now seen as a direct challenge to Zardari's government. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us now from Islamabad. Annie, can you give us a picture of what's going on around the country?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, the arrests of lawyers and opposition activists continue and there are more areas now where public meetings have been banned. Some black-suited lawyers did hold some rallies today without interference but many have gone into hiding. And the big issue is how the protestors are going to move in large convoys towards the capital. The so-called long march kicked off yesterday in the south and west with buses and cars trying to move north to hook up with other demonstrators.

Their goal is to reach Islamabad by Monday for an indefinite sit-tin. By last night, though, the police has stopped the first wave. Despite police beatings and the arrest of several hundred, the march leaders insist the movement is unstoppable, with one saying we'll simply fill the prisons. But there also appears to be some confusion on the part of the government. The president's chief advisor on security has told parliament the long march is going to be allowed, yet the crackdown continues.

WERTHEIMER: Well, that sounds like there might be some chance that the government could either back down or reach some sort of compromise.

GARRELS: Well, President Zardari is certainly coming under pressure. He is being widely criticized, even by some key people in his own party for autocratic behavior and for betraying the wishes of his wife, former party leader Benazir Bhutto. Now she was a far more popular figure than Zardari, and she had supported the lawyers' demands for an independent judiciary.

And in addition to the crackdown on the lawyers movement, Zardari has complicated the whole political thing by moving against his most powerful political opponents, former Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif and his brother. Following a recent Supreme Court ruling banning them from public office, a ruling it's believed Zardari influenced, Zardari then imposed federal control in their stronghold of Punjab. This is the country's largest province.

Analysts say Zardari was trying to buy time so he could probably buy support in the Punjab assembly and get his own people elected. But he hasn't succeeded so far and his own prime minister has distanced himself from the president's moves in the Punjab, and that's another sign of trouble.

WERTHEIMER: Anne, what happens in Pakistan is clearly of great interest to the US government, given the critical role in combating terrorism and its long border with Afghanistan. Can you see Washington moving around in this deteriorating situation there?

GARRELS: There certainly have been intense efforts by US officials. You're right. They've been trying to head off the crisis by urging some kind of compromise. The US ambassador to Pakistan met with Nawaz Sharif. US Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke has spoken to both the prime minister and last night for 30 minutes with the president. According to the State Department, US officials are urging the government to avoid violence and ensure there be no impediments to peaceful democratic activities. But so far no sign of compromise, no sign that the government is going to back off of what it - of its ban.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Anne Garrels is reporting from Islamabad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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