ISLAMABAD - Thousands of Pakistani lawyers Thursday began a Long March to demand restoration of Supreme Court judges sacked two years ago, ignoring both a police crackdown and the government plea on maintaining order during the stir.
Simultaneously setting out from Karachi and Quetta, the lawyers will be joined by their counterparts from Lahore and will converge in the federal capital March 16 for a sit-in at the Constitution Avenue where parliament is situated.
In doing so, the lawyers brushed aside a last minute offer by the government to establish a parliamentary committee to discuss the venue of the sit-in so that law and order in the capital was not impacted.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik made the offer Wednesday in the National Assembly, making a pointed reference to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif that is leading the stir.
‘I request you, Madam Speaker, to form a committee of the House to urge N-league and lawyers’ fraternity to decide a venue for long march to avoid inconvenience to the commonman. If you do so, it would be a historical decision,’ Rehman said.
The lawyers’ stir found an echo across the border, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Thursday reviewing the developments in Pakistan at a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting as New Delhi said ’strong and stable regimes’ are needed in the neighbourhood to combat terrorism.
The meeting analysed the ramifications of political instability in Pakistan on the security situation, reliable sources said. The meeting also discussed the deals struck by Pakistan with the Taliban in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) that have grave implications on the security of India, especially in the context of cross-border terrorism directed from elements in the neighbouring country.
Meanwhile, leaders of Pakistan’s legal fraternity and political parties said they were determined to stage the Islamabad sit-in on March 16.
Lahore High Court Bar Association’s former president Anwar Kamal said the lawyers had chalked out alternative plans to reach Islamabad for the sit-in if they were stopped along the way.
‘We reject imposition of Sec 144 on our democratic and constitutional rights. The curbs on assembly and police crackdown cannot deter us from carrying out the peaceful march and holding sit-in. We will reach the Constitution Avenue at all costs,’ Kamal maintained.
The Punjab government has imposed orders under Section 144 prohibiting the assembly of five or more people and has directed all divisional superintendents of police to constitute teams to arrest political workers mobilising gatherings.
Deputy Inspector General of Police (Operations) Amjad Javed Saleemi said police would maintain law and order and would not allow anyone to disrupt peace.
‘The government has imposed Section 144 to ban public rallies in view of the prevalent security situation. Terrorists can use big gatherings and rallies to carry out their designs and even target political leaders,’ provincial home secretary Rao Iftikhar told a news conference.
In a bid to stall the Long March, police rounded up over 400 opposition activists across Punjab in a major crackdown that began Tuesday night and continued through Wednesday.
The police also raided the houses and offices of lawyers in Punjab capital Lahore.
‘Except for Mian Nawaz Sharif, (former Punjab chief minister) Shahbaz Sharif and some others, most of the top opposition leaders went into hiding as the crackdown began,’ Dawn News reported Thursday.
Police and government officials in Lahore also pulled down banners and posters of the Sharif brothers and other leaders displayed outside the offices of the PML-N party and on roads and crossings.
The police detained PML-N Punjab vice-president Mohammad Ilyas Khan from a wedding reception Wednesday night, Shahbaz Sharif’s spokesman Khwaja Imran Nazir was quoted by the Dawn as saying.
Sources said the government had decided to place PML-N leaders Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif under house arrest by Friday.
Opposition parties alleged that during the raids police personnel misbehaved with women and the elderly.