ISLAMABAD - Pakistan was set for a bruising showdown with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif late Saturday rejecting President Asif Ali Zardari’s olive branch on seeking a review of a Supreme Court verdict barring him and his brother from contesting elections, saying a lawyers’ stir for reinstating the judges sacked in 2007 would go ahead nonetheless.
‘I am declaring here that come what may, the lawyers’ long march will continue to Islamabad,’ he said at a rally in Lahore Saturday night, even as the government, earlier in the day asked the army to remain on standby to prevent the protesters from entering the federal capital.
‘The agitation is about restoring the sacked judges and removing the Punjab governor,’ Sharif added.
In a major climbdown to end the lawyers’ stir, the Pakistani government said Saturday it would appeal against the Supreme Court ruling on the Sharif brothers and also take steps to reinstate the judges then president Pervez Musharraf sacked after declaring an emergency in November 2007.
The decisions were taken at a meeting here between President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Galani, as the government warned the lawyers staging the long march it would not permit them to enter the federal capital.
The president and prime minister agreed that ‘the issue of judiciary and restoration of judges would be resolved in accordance with the principles laid down in the Charter of Democracy’, a document former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had signed late in 2007 just before Bhutto’s assassination, the official APP news agency said.
Zardari’s reneging on the agreement had prompted Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to walk out of the coalition led by the president’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) formed after the February 2008 general elections.
The army was placed on alert here as a defiant Sharif Saturday afternoon turned down the government’s plea to call off the lawyers’ march, saying there was no room left for talks.
‘At the moment, the police are in place but the army has been asked to stand by in case it is required,’ an official spokesman said.
In other developments Saturday, Information and Broadcasting Minister Sherry Rehman sent her resignation to Gilani, apparently miffed over Zardari’s orders to blank out Geo TV and other private channels for highlighting the lawyers’ stir.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also telephoned Zardari to reaffirm Washington’s support for democracy in Pakistan.
Thousands of lawyers Thursday set out simultaneously from Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab and will converge here Monday to demand the reinstatement of the Supreme Court and the high court judges whom Musharraf had sacked. A similar agitation a year ago had resulted in Musharraf’s ouster.
The PML-N has jumped on to the lawyers’ bandwagon to protest the Supreme Court judgement on the Sharif brothers. The verdict led to the fall of Shahbaz Sharif’s Punjab government and the imposition of the Governor’s Rule in the province.
Nawaz Sharif has accused Zardari of engineering the court verdict to settle political scores.
Speaking to reporters at his home on the outskirts of Lahore, Sharif said he was all for reconciliation but was not prepared to take Zardari at his word.
‘He had said earlier that he would not become the president but he did become (president),’ Sharif pointed out.
At the same time, he urged Gilani to take the initiative to break the deadlock, assuring him of his full support.
Observers here saw Sharif’s appeal to Gilani as an attempt to drive a wedge between the prime minister and the president, who are not known to be on the best of terms.
Interior Minister Rehman Khan, however, sought to dispel suggestions that all was not well between Zardari and Gilani, even as he appealed to the lawyers to come to the negotiating table, warning that the marchers would not be permitted to enter Islamabad.
‘There are no differences between the president and the prime minister,’ he said at a press conference here, adding: ‘This is disinformation being spread by our enemies.
‘Let us not head toward another East Pakistan,’ he said, while appealing to the protesting lawyers to abandon their ‘long march’ and sit for talks with the government.
The reference was to the agitation in the erstwhile East Pakistan after the 1971 elections that eventually led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh.
The agitation began after then military dictator Gen. Yahya Khan refused to accept the electoral verdict that saw the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman emerge as the largest party in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
‘I appeal to you to come for talks. Please postpone your agitation. Your march is against the unity of the nation,’ Rehman maintained.
‘If at all there has to be a march, let us march to Swat, to FATA. Let us march for the country,’ he stated.
‘I again appeal to you. Please consider the interests of the country. Don’t march to Islamabad. Let’s talk and resolve our issues,’ the interior minister said, adding: ‘The long march cannot be against the interest of Pakistan.’
Malik refused to be drawn into the circumstances under which Sherry Rehman had resigned, saying: ‘Only she can answer that question.’
He also contended that the government had nothing do with the blackout of TV channels.
‘There was a dispute regarding the channel. It was a problem of the cable operators. We had nothing to do with it. We believe in the freedom of journalism,’ Malik maintained.
Geo TV insisted Zardari had ordered the ban.
‘It has been learned that cable operators across the country blocked the transmission of Geo News on the directive of President Asif Ali Zardari,’ it said in a posting on its website.