- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

ISLAMABAD | Opposition supporters torched cars and stoned buildings Thursday after Pakistan’s Supreme Court barred two of their leaders from elected office, triggering political turmoil.

The unrest comes as the country’s pro-Western government faces strong U.S. pressure to crack down on Taliban and al Qaeda militants and a punishing economic crisis.

Wednesday’s rulings upheld an existing ban on Nawaz Sharif from contesting elections because of a criminal conviction related to the 1999 military coup by former President Pervez Musharraf that ousted Mr. Sharif as prime minister.

The rulings also removed his brother as head of the government in Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province.

Hundreds of Sharif supporters gathered in Rawalpindi, just south of the capital, waving his party’s green flags and chanting slogans against the government. Most were peaceful, but some set up barricades of burning tires and used rocks to smash the windows of stores and banks on a main shopping street, witnesses said.

A mob also torched four vehicles on the highway linking Islamabad to the Punjab, police officer Ahmed Latif said.

The court decisions prevent Mr. Sharif from challenging President Asif Ali Zardari in general elections in 2013. Mr. Zardari compounded the blow by dismissing the government in Punjab and putting its governor - a Zardari loyalist - in charge.

On Thursday, about 20 lawmakers from Mr. Sharif’s party were herded into police trucks as they gathered for a protest at the Punjab Assembly in the eastern city of Lahore.

Police let them clamber out as the crowd swelled with supporters, who swarmed past barriers, banged on the wooden doors of the assembly building and held a mock parliamentary session on the steps.

“We are democrats, and what we are seeing today is shameful,” lawmaker Rana Iqbal said.

Addressing a mass rally in the Punjab town of Sheikhupura, Mr. Sharif said the Supreme Court had inflicted “tremendous harm” but the nation had risen up.

“This gathering is a referendum against Zardari,” Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying.

Mr. Sharif, widely considered the country’s most popular politician, has accused Mr. Zardari of orchestrating the court decisions and called for protests.

He also has urged his supporters to join mass rallies planned for mid-March by Pakistan’s lawyers, whose protests for an independent judiciary undermined Mr. Musharraf’s long rule.

Dozens of judges who were ousted when Mr. Musharraf imposed emergency rule in 2007 have returned to the courts under the year-old government led by Mr. Zardari’s party.

But the government has blocked the return of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the former chief justice who questioned a pact that quashed long-standing corruption charges against Mr. Zardari and his slain wife, former leader Benazir Bhutto.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide