Pakistanis protest court ruling against Sharif
hussain | February 26, 2009 at 07:45 amby
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LAHORE: Thousands of angry protesters marched across Pakistan on Thursday denouncing President Asif Ali Zardari after a court barred the main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif from running for office.
Government put paramilitaries on alert and police arrested 30 lawmakers in what marked the biggest protests against President Zardari since he assumed office last September.
Main opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for action after the Supreme Court on Wednesday barred him and his brother from running for election and holding public office, sparking political turmoil.
Zardari and Sharif have long fought over the future of Pakistan, a key US ally in the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy, which has been teetering under financial crisis, Islamist extremism and weak government.
Addressing a mass rally in Sheikhupura, Sharif said the Supreme Court had inflicted "tremendous harm" but the nation had risen up.
"This gathering is a referendum against Zardari," he said -- securing a pledge from the crowd to march next month demanding that the government reinstate constitutional court judges sacked by former ruler Pervez Musharraf.
Analysts said Pakistan, reeling from extremist attacks that have killed more than 1,600 people in less than two years, can ill afford a political showdown.
Sharif's brother Shahbaz lost his post as Chief Minister of Punjab province where the government suspended the provincial parliament, bringing it under Islamabad's direct control.
"Go and start sitting in the Punjab assembly. People neither accept the governor or governor's rule. These judges cannot disqualify you," said Sharif.
Twice a former prime minister, 59-year-old Nawaz Sharif has re-emerged as a key player in Pakistani politics since he returned after seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia.
His conservative Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) -- the country's second biggest party -- demands the reinstatement of the constitutional court judges sacked when Musharraf declared emergency rule in 2007.
In Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and capital of Sharif's political heartland, thousands of people stormed the barricades for a sit-in outside the governor's residence, punching their fists in the air, witnesses said.
A crowd of up to 5,000 protesters torched two large hoardings showing Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and beat pictures of Zardari with sticks and shoes before setting them ablaze. Hundreds more rallied elsewhere in Lahore.
"The Punjab government has requested the deployment of the Rangers and we have accepted their request," a spokesman for the interior ministry told Geo News, referring to a paramilitary force.
Hundreds rallied in Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir, where hundreds chanted "Murderer of democracy, Zardari, Zardari!" and torched his picture, people on the spot said.
Smaller protests were held in 15 districts of Punjab, in Peshawar and other districts of the North West Frontier Province on the Afghan border.
In Lahore, police briefly detained about 30 lawmakers outside parliament while riot police armed with truncheons and tear gas stood guard.
In Multan, another town in Punjab, lawyers burnt an effigy of Zardari, said a reporter.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) wanted to continue a policy of national reconciliation.
"If there is no consensus, external forces will benefit from the present situation. I contacted Shahbaz Sharif and expressed sadness over the verdict," he said.
"If the situation does not improve the courts will not be able to stop an army take over," said former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan.
The Supreme Court confirmed a lower court verdict in Lahore last June that Nawaz Sharif was ineligible to stand in a by-election due to past convictions.
Sharif's two terms as prime minister in the 1990s were marred by corruption claims and efforts to introduce Islamic Sharia law.
Meanwhile, addressing the maiden public meeting after the court ruling, Nawaz Sharif told a huge gathering in Sheikhupura on Thursday that President Asif Zardari had decieved the nation and did not honour his comments. He said that his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, was still chief minister of the Punjab province under the constitution.
SHEIKHUPURA: Pakistan Muslim League (N) Chief Mian Nawaz Sharif has said the people would not accept the Supreme Court ruling. He said no undemocratic action would be tolerated and the mandate of the people should be respected.
Addressing a huge public rally here on Thursday, Nawaz said Pakistan is passing through hard times because of verdicts of the PCO judiciary. He said President Asif Ali Zardari had deceived the nation and did not honour his commitments.
PML (N) chief said Shahbaz Sharif was still the Chief Minister of Punjab under the constitution. Nawaz said that long spells of dictatorship had been snubbing democratic process in the country. He urged people to raise their voice and play an active role in safeguarding Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif said President Zardari did not honour Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s will and there was a dichotomy between his words and his actions. “If Benazir Bhutto were alive today, we would not have to witness present state of affairs”, Nawaz added.
Praising Prime Minister’s efforts for political reconciliation between PML (N) and PPP, Sharif asked Gilani to distance himself from the Supreme Court verdict by joining people. He revealed that Sindh Education Minister, Pir Mazhar-ul-Haq told Mian Shahbaz Sharif in a meeting that Sindh should also have a Chief Minister like Shahbaz Sharif.
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