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Pakistan moves to curb protests

More police are deployed and checkpoints imposed to stop a sit-in in Islamabad as pressure builds on the government to resolve the issue, centered on lawyers' demands that sacked judges be reinstated.

March 14, 2009|Mark Magnier

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Domestic and international pressure on Pakistan to calm political unrest intensified Friday as continued street clashes threatened to impair transportation, the economy and the fight against extremism.

The administration of President Asif Ali Zardari redoubled efforts to prevent demonstrators from reaching the capital, where they plan a sit-in Monday near parliament.

The government detained more protesters, called in additional police reinforcements, blocked more roads and further extended rules restricting public gatherings of more than four people, arguing that such meetings threatened public order and provided a target for terrorists.

In Peshawar, lawyers staged a protest over the crackdown in front of the provincial assembly building, while senior lawyer Abdul Latif Afridi and dozens of other local leaders remained under house arrest.

U.S. and British officials have stepped up their calls for a democratic solution, convinced that the bickering, posturing and street confrontations can only detract from Pakistan's efforts to fight Taliban-linked and Al Qaeda extremists operating within its borders.

The lawyers are demanding the reinstatement of Supreme Court judges removed by former President Pervez Musharraf. Zardari's administration has rejected the demands, fearing the judges would hand down unfavorable rulings.

"The government's in a real twist," said Musharraf Zaidi, a political analyst. "Something has to give, and the weakest spine appears to be the government's."

Even prominent members of Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party, including Sen. Safdar Abbasi and his wife, Naheed Khan, have come out in support of the lawyers.

Growing calls for reconciliation led to a flurry of meetings among top opposition figures, the president, prime minister, army chief of staff and important provincial officials.

"There's a lot of jockeying and pushing to and fro," said Tariq Fatemi, an analyst and former foreign secretary. "The next little while will be crucial."

Fatemi and others said the skeleton of a compromise might see the president reinstate the chief justices and remove a ban on opposition figures Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz holding elective office.

In return, observers said, the opposition and the lawyers groups might agree to call off the protests. Ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, if reinstated, might give some quiet assurance that he wouldn't rule that Zardari is ineligible for office because of previous corruption charges, they said.

The president, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, spent eight years in prison on graft charges, though he was never convicted. Pakistan's judiciary has been politicized for much of its history.

Government arguments that the largely peaceful protests threaten society have been weakened by the middle-class nature of the movement, led by lawyers. A group of 22 former ambassadors called for the government to back down by reinstating Chaudhry.

The use of force against peaceful demonstrators has "further exacerbated the constitutional and political crisis facing the country and threaten to plunge it into deeper turmoil and chaos," the former envoys said in a statement.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband telephoned Zardari this week, reportedly expressing their concern about the turmoil and urging him to find a solution. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also expressed concern over the situation.

The reported death toll of an apparent U.S. missile strike late Thursday against suspected militants rose to more than 20. U.S. officials have declined to comment on the incident in northwestern Pakistan, believed to have been carried out by a drone aircraft.

Pakistan is also facing international pressure over the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, in November. India provided responses Friday to 30 questions from Pakistan as part of parallel investigations of the attacks, adding that it was time for Islamabad to act quickly in its inquiry. Pakistan has detained several Islamists and acknowledged that the 60-hour siege that left more than 170 dead was launched from and partially planned on its soil.

But analysts and regular citizens alike said the political crisis gripping Pakistan probably would slow the investigation, along with efforts to revive the economy.

"We need a just government in this country," said Mohammed Azad, 56, a hospital supply company worker, sipping a cup of tea. "They don't worry about ordinary people, who are headed for the poor house."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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