ISLAMABAD - The police in Pakistan’s eastern province of Punjab began a crackdown Wednesday on opposition parties and anti-government lawyers to forestall this week’s planned countrywide protest march.
More than 150 political activists, mostly from the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, were rounded up in several towns of the country’s most populous province, according to media reports.
The arrests came after an overnight ban on public gatherings in Punjab and were followed by a similar ban in the southern Sindh province.
Authorities said public gatherings were banned in the wake of security threats, saying militants might attack protesters.
Opposition parties have joined the defiant lawyers in their planned rally, which they have named the ‘Long March’.
Protesters will call for the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was sacked by ex-president Pervez Musharraf in 2007.
The march is scheduled to begin in Sindh and Balochistan provinces Thursday and will go through Punjab and culminate with a sit-in outside the parliament building in Islamabad Monday.
Ali Ahmad Kurd, head of the lawyers’ campaign, vowed to go ahead with the protest, saying marchers would proceed even if their leaders were taken into custody.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party decried the police crackdown as dictatorial tactics.
‘The arrests have strengthened our resolve to fight for an independent judiciary and rule of law,’ party spokesman Ahsan Iqbal said.
Sharif’s party ruled Punjab until late February when the Supreme Court barred the two-time ex-premier and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from office.
The judgment removed Shahbaz from the seat of chief minister, sparking a wave of angry protests throughout Punjab.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was blamed for influencing the verdict, but he denied the allegations.
Zardari, along with Sharif, who remained his coalition partner for five months, earlier pledged to reinstate Chaudhry, but later backed off amid speculation that independent-minded judges could reverse a controversial law by Musharraf that cleared Zardari of graft charges.
The political conflict has raised concern among Western countries who want nuclear-armed Pakistan to focus on the fight against militancy in its restive northwest region bordering Afghanistan.