Anti-Musharraf Protesters Arrested in Pakistan

Pakistani police have arrested opposition party activists in an apparent bid to stave off demonstrations against President Pervez Musharraf's plans to seek re-election. Graham Usher, a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan, talks to Jacki Lyden about the growing discontent with Musharraf.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Pakistani police rounded up opposition activists today in what appears to be an attempt to head off new protests against President Pervez Musharraf. This week, Pakistan's Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether Musharraf can run again for president and his opponents say they will take to the streets if the court gives him the okay.

Graham Usher is a journalist who covers Pakistan, and he joins me now. Graham Usher, who are these politicians who were arrested today?

Mr. GRAHAM USHER (Freelance Journalist, Pakistan): Well basically, they are senior leaders in the main opposition parties in Pakistan who have formed themselves into a movement that's called the Old Parties Democratic Movement. And they consist of mainstream parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif to Islamic parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami. And it seems that the main leaders have been targeted from Nawaz Sharif party and from the Jamaat-e-Islami, from the religious party.

LYDEN: Does anyone know about how many people have been taken into custody?

Mr. USHER: It's very murky. The spokesperson for the Jamaat-e-Islami says that hundreds of his people have been picked up. Officials in Islamabad are simply saying that 14 people have been arrested. But amongst those 14, it's known there are senior leaders who have been given 30-day detention orders, which means they basically cannot leave their lodging or their house for another month.

LYDEN: The Supreme Court is to rule this week on whether or not President Musharraf can seek another term, would you tell us about that please?

Mr. USHER: The Supreme Court will rule on whether we stand for a president while having his position of army chief of staff. If the Supreme Court rules that he cannot run, then we're in a totally different ball game. Either he would have to stand down and basically accept that he's lost, or he would result to some kind of extraordinary measures with some saying he would go from Martial Law.

This week, the opposition parties have pledged to hold demonstrations outside the Supreme Court, hoping for a verdict against President Musharraf. And they've also said that they will resign from the federal and provincial assembly at the end of this week if Musharraf does presents his papers to run again for president. And once they resign, they will take the protests away from the courts and onto the street.

So these arrests basically are preemptive move by the government to prevent popular demonstration and popular opposition to the continuing role of President Musharraf.

LYDEN: Osama bin Laden released a statement last week urging Pakistanis to overthrow President Musharraf. Is this a factor in today's arrest?

Mr. USHER: I don't think it's a factor in today's arrest. But it is a factor in the general instability, I think. There is a major insurgency going on in Pakistan, particularly in the areas bordering Afghanistan. And I think Pakistanis are particularly concerned because this conflict is deeply unpopular. It's seen as a struggle or an offensive against the Taliban being made by Musharraf at the behest of Washington. And the Pakistani Army, quite simply, is losing this war.

And in response, the Taliban and pro-al-Qaida elements are basically keeping military targets at will in Pakistan's city. And there is a general stand that this is a conflict the parties do now want. They would prefer a political solution. And so, in that sense, that's (unintelligible) in to the lack of legitimacy Musharraf has and the lack of popularity and his need, really, to steamroller through and be president again for another five years.

LYDEN: Graham Usher is a journalist who covers Pakistan. We spoke to him in Islamabad.

Thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. USHER: Thank you.

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