Watch CBSN Live

Pakistan Cracks Down On Opposition Voices

This story was filed by CBS News' Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.

(AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)
Pakistan's shaky, Western-backed government is cracking down on agitating lawyers and opposition activists ahead of anti-government protests planned for next Monday (March 16).

The protests, which were to culminate with a march to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, were planned to mark the two-year anniversary of former supreme court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry's dismissal by then-president Pervez Musharraf.

According to a senior government official, security forces were ready to block protesters entering the capital.

"We have to protect important and sensitive locations here. We can simply not afford to let this situation spin out of control," the official told CBS News on condition of anonymity.

Police in two Pakistani provinces, Sindh and Punjab, also began enforcing a ban on public gatherings Wednesday, ahead of the planned protests. Together, Sindh and Punjab are home to 80 percent of Pakistan's total population of roughly 165 million.

(AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)
At left, Pakistani police officers beat and arrest a supporter of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in Multan, Pakistan on March 11, 2009.

Early morning police raids in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, saw hundreds of lawyers either arrested or forced into hiding. In Karachi, Sindh's capital city, police and paramilitary forces were seen on the main streets in larger numbers than usual.

De-robed judge Chaudhary has become an icon of resistance to Pakistan's strong-armed rulers for having shown defiance to the former president, who was also head of the country's powerful army at the time.

Next Monday's protests are meant to press current President Asif Ali Zardari, Musharraf's replacement, to reinstate the former chief justice. Zardari has thus far resisted the move, prompting increasingly vocal criticism from lawyers and opposition leaders.

Athar Minallah, a prominent attorney at the forefront of the lawyers' movement, told CBS News the protests will continue, regardless of the crackdown.

"We are not about to back off. Our cause is for the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan. Our movement is about saving the future destiny of our country," said Minallah.

The protests have gathered speed since Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and now-leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), decided to back the movement.

Last month, Pakistan's Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from running in future elections. He responded to the verdict by denouncing Zardari for allegedly using his influence with the courts to force the decision.

Political unrest in this nuclear-armed south Asian country is of great concern to President Obama's administration as it plans to raise the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where American and coalition forces are fighting an enlivened Taliban insurgency.

Pakistan has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Political volatility in Pakistan will have international consequences for the U.S. and other Western partners of Pakistan, who would have reason to be very worried," a Western diplomat in Islamabad told CBS News on Wednesday.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue