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In Pakistan, Zardari’s Crackdown Betrays Weakness

7 minute read
Omar Waraich / Islamabad

Pakistan’s political turmoil has deepened as a result of a government crackdown on opposition groups across two provinces. In a desperate attempt to halt next week’s lawyer-led “long march” for the reinstatement of deposed judges, police and intelligence officials carried out early-morning raids across Punjab and Sindh, arresting more than 300 lawyers and political activists. All major entry points to the capital, Islamabad, have been blocked by either large containers or manned checkpoints. As human-rights groups denounce the moves, political observers wonder how much longer the already shaky government of President Asif Ali Zardari can hold on.

The crackdown began late Tuesday night, with the government invoking Section 144 of the 1860 Penal Code, a law from the British colonial era that forbids public gatherings of four or more people. As whispers of imminent arrests gathered momentum and local television channels exhibited lengthy lists of intended targets, many prominent lawyers and politicians went into hiding, just as they did during a crackdown operated by former President Pervez Musharraf (who was defeated at the polls by the combined parties of Zardari and his now estranged ally Nawaz Sharif). (See pictures from the historic 2008 election that brought down Musharraf.)

Indeed, many of the people allegedly on the lists were last arrested in late 2007, when Musharraf imposed emergency rule. At 2:30 a.m., police arrived outside the hilltop villa of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, only to find the gates bolted shut. Khan had fled hours earlier after receiving a tip-off. “We had been warned, so I left my house well in time,” he told TIME by cell phone from an undisclosed location. “I’m in hiding; I’m moving from place to place. We want to make sure that all of us can make it to Islamabad on the 16th.”

Athar Minallah, a prominent lawyer, maneuvered himself out of being arrested from the driver’s seat of his car. “I locked myself in the car, and the police didn’t know how to get me,” he said. “So I called the television cameras who were only two minutes away. I began giving live interviews from the car, addressing the Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, directly. After a while, Mr. Malik came down himself and shouted the police officers away.”

Other opposition figures did not have time to avoid arrest or harassment. Just before dawn, two burly policemen hurled bricks at the home of Tahira Abdullah, 50, a women’s rights activist. “They damaged my kitchen door — they were breaking in and entering,” she said moments after her release from an Islamabad women’s police station. “It is a sad day for Pakistan when the people we marched with for democracy against the dictatorships of General [Mohammed] Zia ul-Haq and General Musharraf arrest human-rights activists.”

The government insists that, faced with the prospect of violence in the capital, it had to act. “No elected government wants to take preventive measures like this, but it has been forced into this position as it has to provide security to its capital and citizens,” Sherry Rehman, the Information Minister and a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told TIME. “The opposition has clearly asked public officials to rebel, and this cannot be allowed by even the most pacifist government.”

But the argument has won little favor with human-rights groups. “In our view, Section 144 is a draconian colonial-era law that flies against the most basic principles of freedom of assembly,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. “We have repeatedly called for it to be abolished. Any use of the law is by its nature oppressive. Last year the government won plaudits for allowing the same march by lawyers to proceed to Islamabad. It is disappointing that the Pakistani government feels the need to revert to an authoritarian tradition that is best left behind.”

Political tensions had been escalating in recent days. After joining forces to oust Musharraf in March 2008, Zardari and Sharif quickly parted ways and revived their decades-old poisonous rivalry. Zardari, who claimed the presidency for himself, reneged on a commitment to Sharif to reinstate the deposed Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry, who, along with a raft of other judges, was removed by Musharraf when he imposed emergency rule. Last month, in a controversial ruling, the Supreme Court barred Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz from standing for elected office. The decision triggered the collapse of the Punjab government led by Shahbaz as Zardari moved swiftly to impose governor’s rule on the largest and wealthiest province, handing over control to a key ally, Salmaan Taseer. The Sharifs have since been staging political rallies across Punjab, rallying support for the protest march with a series of inflammatory speeches denouncing Zardari’s government.

See pictures of Pakistan’s vulnerable North-West Frontier Province.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

Zardari supporters argue that the Sharifs, by summoning tens of thousands of protesters to Islamabad, were intent on toppling the new civilian government and forced its hand. Islamabad officials warned that riots could potentially bring down the government, tip the country into deeper chaos or even invite military intervention. In 1977, a movement led by right-wing and religious forces similar to the opposition parties aligned with Sharif brought down the first PPP government, then run by Zardari’s father-in-law, and paved the way for Zia ul-Haq to seize power in a military coup.

But Aitzaz Ahsan, a leading attorney and member of the PPP who opposes Zardari’s crackdown, counters that the lawyers are merely fighting for an independent judiciary that will fortify democracy in Pakistan. “We don’t want military intervention; we want to strengthen parliament and the democratic system,” he told TIME, also speaking by cell phone from an undisclosed location to evade arrest. “Existing examples of democratic government are testament to the fact that you can’t have a stable parliament without an independent judiciary — it’s a sine qua non. A democratic system will remain weak if there are timorous judges.”

Ahsan added that “it’s a tragic irony” that he is now being hunted by policemen on the orders of a government led by his own party. “It’s also a joke,” he said sourly. “Particularly because I stand the ground on which the late Benazir Bhutto [Zardari’s assassinated wife] stood when she promised the reinstatement of the Chief Justice. And I stand on the ground that is sanctified by three signatures on three different occasions by the new President, Asif Ali Zardari. It’s ironic that the person who didn’t break an agreement should be on the run.” (See pictures of Pakistanis mourning for Bhutto.)

Zardari’s popularity has fallen steadily since he reneged on reinstating Chaudhry. Pakistan’s vocal media has taunted him with video footage of his slain wife vowing to restore the independent-minded judiciary. Zardari allies argue that Chaudhry has become “too politicized”; they also worry that the former Chief Justice could paralyze the government with judicial activism if restored to office. Critics charge that the President only wants pliant judges who won’t threaten to revive corruption charges against him.

Analysts believe the crackdown will make Zardari even more unpopular, while boosting the standing of Sharif, a man once loathed for his own earlier attacks on the judiciary. “It’s a very ominous turn of events,” said Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. “These are not actions that one normally associates with an elected government that has flaunted its democratic credentials.” While she rules out a coup, Shaikh believes that Zardari’s latest maneuvering will “create great consternation in the senior ranks of the army.” General Ashfaq Kayani made a surprise visit to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday to discuss the turmoil. “I suspect what might happen is an attempt by the military to orchestrate events in a way to curb or control Mr. Zardari’s powers,” added Shaikh. “Patience appears to be running out with Mr. Zardari — in Pakistan, among the military establishment and the international community.”

See a story about Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the lawyer’s protests in Pakistan.

See a story about Musharraf fancying a comeback.

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