[Marxism] Mass Demonstration Defies Pakistani Government
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 15 09:57:59 MDT 2009
NY Times, March 16, 2009
Mass Demonstration Defies Pakistani Government
By JANE PERLEZ
LAHORE, Pakistan — A crackdown by the Pakistani government to prevent a
national demonstration and detain the country’s leading opposition
figure collapsed on Sunday, and what had been a clash between the police
and protesters transformed into a huge antigovernment rally.
In what analysts here called an unprecedented reversal by security
forces, phalanxes of riot policemen here in Lahore melted away rather
than continue to confront protesters who had rallied around the
opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, when he defied a house arrest order
By early evening, the sight of exuberant anti-government crowds in
Lahore — a mix of Mr. Sharif’s loyalists, supporters of smaller
opposition parties and ordinary people with their young children —
encouraged people in other cities in the Punjab Province to come out on
In a long convoy of cars, Mr. Sharif headed toward Islamabad, with
supporters ready to greet him along the 200 mile route, said Ahsan
Iqbal, the information secretary for Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan
Muslim League-N said.
Party workers armed with cranes were removing shipping containers placed
as roadblocks by the police at junctions along the route to the capital,
Mr. Iqbal said.
Mr. Sharif began the day under house arrest at his home outside Lahore,
hemmed in by barbed wire and security roadblocks. But he denounced the
crackdown as illegal and said he would move to address an opposition
demonstration at the city center and continue with a national opposition
march on the capital planned for Monday. He left his house in a convoy
of cars that broke through a ring of police barriers.
Then the convoy reached the main thoroughfare in Lahore, known as The
Mall, it was joined by truckloads of supporters, who waved banners and
shouted slogans calling for the restoration of an independent judiciary.
Apparently with the help of sympathetic police officials, Mr. Sharif’s
convoy was able to move slowly toward the area around the General Post
Office building, where riot police and protesters began scuffling.
A phalanx of several hundred police officers in riot gear fired shells
of tear gas for more than an hour at the protesters. The police then
brought in armored vehicles to fire more rounds of tear gas as stones
and empty tear gas shells littered the road. Some protesters set tires
on fire, and police officers wielding batons chased them.
But by 5 p.m., the police disappeared and huge crowds, on foot and in
cars, enveloped the Mall. Green, red and white banners of with portraits
of Mr. Sharif were held aloft as other groups, including
Jamaat-i-Islami, a right wing Islamist group, joined what turned into
the anti-government demonstration that the government had feared all
along. The leader of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, moved toward
the High Court, accompanied by scores of lawyers, to make a speech.
One of the senior officials in the Lahore government, the chief
magistrate, Sajjad Bhutta, told reporters he refused to carry out what
he called the illegal acts of the police crackdown. He appeared among
the crowds on the mall, surrounded by cheers and waving flags.
Mr. Ahsan said that protesters would try to defy the government’s
efforts to keep them away from Islamabad and would attempt to converge
on the capital from various points around the country on Monday.
“The strategy is simple,” Mr. Ahsan said. “The long march is on for an
There appeared to have been a decision, either by provincial officials,
many of whom support Mr. Sharif, or at the national level, to allow Mr.
Sharif to proceed.
A statement by the Home Department in Lahore released shortly after the
police fired tear gas said that the police had taken the action only
after the protesters turned violent. And in Islamabad, Farahnaz
Ispahani, a spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari, said on Sunday
that the detention orders for leaders of the PML-N had been issued for
the sake of their security.
“The government cannot be responsible for someone inflaming crowds,” she
said. “It’s not a mature move. From a security view we don’t think this
is a wise move.”
Still, the profound turnaround, from government crackdown to a huge
anti-government show, was greeted with amazement by analysts and lawyers
in Pakistan. During the eight year military rule of President Pervez
Musharraf from 1999 to early last year, there were no similar efforts to
crackdown on demonstrators in such a way, they said. For example, the
lawyers movement organized large convoys through the countryside in 2007
in protest against the dismissal of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
But the convoys were allowed to proceed largely untouched by security
forces, they said.
“This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and
civil administration have defied orders by the government to control
public demonstrations,” said Ashtar Ali, a corporate lawyer who supports
the Pakistan Muslim League-N. “The writ of the government has failed.”
A mirror incident played out in Islamabad earlier on Sunday, when police
officers in riot gear arrested Mahdum Javed Hashemi, a senior member of
the Pakistan Muslim League-N, plucking him from the passenger seat of a
purple Toyota Land Cruiser.
A small crowd of supporters shouted “We disagree!” as Mr. Hashemi was
led toward a police truck.
“We’re not running because we’re not afraid of this illegal order,” Mr.
Hashemi said. “Even if I’m gone, my party workers and the lawyers will
keep on working for the freedom of the judiciary.”
Ms. Ispahani, the spokeswoman for Mr. Zardari, said that Mr. Hashemi had
been detained because “we want to keep him home, we want to keep him safe.”
The current battle between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, a former prime
minister, began on Feb. 25 when the president imposed executive rule on
the Punjab Legislature, the stronghold of Mr. Sharif’s party.
Hours earlier, the Supreme Court had issued its ruling disqualifying the
Sharifs from holding office. To consolidate their opposition to Mr.
Zardari, the brothers joined forces with the lawyers’ movement, which
had called for a national protest and sit-in in Islamabad on March 16.
Appeals by the United States to President Asif Ali Zardari and to Nawaz
Sharif to cool the political crisis in the past few days appeared to
have been rebuffed.
In a last-minute move to mollify the opposition, Mr. Zardari’s spokesman
said Saturday night that the government would seek a review of a Supreme
Court decision last month that disqualified the Sharif brothers from
holding elective office. But Mr. Sharif has said that such a gesture
would be insufficient to head off the protests.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Mr. Zardari and Mr.
Sharif on Saturday evening to discuss the situation before the
announcement was made, spokesmen for the two men said. Although Mr.
Zardari’s gesture came after she called, it seemed not enough to deter
Mr. Zardari also said in a statement by his spokesman that the
government would review how Supreme Court judges, fired two years ago by
President Pervez Musharraf, could be restored. This would be done, he
said, in accordance with a document signed three years ago by Mr. Sharif
and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Carlotta Gall and Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from
Islamabad, and Waqar Gillani from Lahore.
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