Confrontation looms in Pakistan over sacked judges

Islamabad : A confrontation is looming between the government and the opposition over restoring Supreme Court judges sacked two years ago, with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif bent on leading a countrywide “Long March” of lawyers on the issue.

The Punjab government Tuesday night began a crackdown on Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leaders but a defiant Sharif vowed the struggle would continue.

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This is despite the fact that Interior Minister Rehman Malik has threatened to slap sedition charges against Sharif if the march goes ahead Thursday.

“These house arrests will not be able to foil the lawyers’ Long March,” Geo TV Wednesday quoted Sharif as saying.

The former prime minister, who was ousted from power in 1999 by the military, was addressing supporters at his residence on the outskirts of Lahore before leaving for Abbotabad town in Punjab where he addressed a mammoth rally.

The Long March is to simultaneously begin Thursday from Balochistan and Sindh and after passing through the Punjab province will culminate in a sit-in outside the parliament here.

The News newspaper reported Wednesday that PML-N leader Raja Zafarul Haq was placed under house arrest while more than 150 party activists had also been taken into custody.

It said that “lists of workers’ names have been provided to police stations after which police (carried) out raids to arrest these workers. Banners placed by PML-N for the Long March have been removed”.

Human rights activist Tahira Abdullah was also arrested but there were conflicting reports that she had been released.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the PML-N had emerged as the two largest parties after the February 2008 elections and agreed to form a coalition government.

However, they soon fell out after PPP co-chair Asif Ali Zardari, now the president, reneged on a pledge to reinstate the judges, including then Supreme Court chief justice Ifthikar Mohammad Chaudhury. All of them were sacked after then president Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency in 2007.

Zardari apparently apprehended that Chaudhury could reopen the graft cases that Musharraf had ordered withdrawn.

This led to the PML-N pulling out of the federal coalition and its ministers resigning from the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.