Pakistan's political turmoil has deepened as a result of a government crackdown on opposition groups across two provinces. In a desperate attempt to halt next week's lawyer-led "long march" for the reinstatement of deposed judges, police and intelligence officials carried out early-morning raids across Punjab and Sindh, arresting more than 300 lawyers and political activists. All major entry points to the capital, Islamabad, have been blocked by either large containers or manned checkpoints. As human-rights groups denounce the moves, political observers wonder how much longer the already shaky government of President Asif Ali Zardari can hold on.
The crackdown began late Tuesday night, with the government invoking Section 144 of the 1860 Penal Code, a law from the British colonial era that forbids public gatherings of four or more people. As whispers of imminent arrests gathered momentum and local television channels exhibited lengthy lists of intended targets, many prominent lawyers and politicians went into hiding, just as they did during a crackdown operated by former President Pervez Musharraf (who was defeated at the polls by the combined parties of Zardari and his now estranged ally Nawaz Sharif). (See pictures from the historic 2008 election that brought down Musharraf.)
Indeed, many of the people allegedly on the lists were last arrested in late 2007, when Musharraf imposed emergency rule. At 2:30 a.m., police arrived outside the hilltop villa of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, only to find the gates bolted shut. Khan had fled hours earlier after receiving a tip-off. "We had been warned, so I left my house well in time," he told TIME by cell phone from an undisclosed location. "I'm in hiding; I'm moving from place to place. We want to make sure that all of us can make it to Islamabad on the 16th."
Athar Minallah, a prominent lawyer, maneuvered himself out of being arrested from the driver's seat of his car. "I locked myself in the car, and the police didn't know how to get me," he said. "So I called the television cameras who were only two minutes away. I began giving live interviews from the car, addressing the Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, directly. After a while, Mr. Malik came down himself and shouted the police officers away."
Other opposition figures did not have time to avoid arrest or harassment. Just before dawn, two burly policemen hurled bricks at the home of Tahira Abdullah, 50, a women's rights activist. "They damaged my kitchen door they were breaking in and entering," she said moments after her release from an Islamabad women's police station. "It is a sad day for Pakistan when the people we marched with for democracy against the dictatorships of General [Mohammed] Zia ul-Haq and General Musharraf arrest human-rights activists."
The government insists that, faced with the prospect of violence in the capital, it had to act. "No elected government wants to take preventive measures like this, but it has been forced into this position as it has to provide security to its capital and citizens," Sherry Rehman, the Information Minister and a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), told TIME. "The opposition has clearly asked public officials to rebel, and this cannot be allowed by even the most pacifist government."
But the argument has won little favor with human-rights groups. "In our view, Section 144 is a draconian colonial-era law that flies against the most basic principles of freedom of assembly," said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. "We have repeatedly called for it to be abolished. Any use of the law is by its nature oppressive. Last year the government won plaudits for allowing the same march by lawyers to proceed to Islamabad. It is disappointing that the Pakistani government feels the need to revert to an authoritarian tradition that is best left behind."
Political tensions had been escalating in recent days. After joining forces to oust Musharraf in March 2008, Zardari and Sharif quickly parted ways and revived their decades-old poisonous rivalry. Zardari, who claimed the presidency for himself, reneged on a commitment to Sharif to reinstate the deposed Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry, who, along with a raft of other judges, was removed by Musharraf when he imposed emergency rule. Last month, in a controversial ruling, the Supreme Court barred Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz from standing for elected office. The decision triggered the collapse of the Punjab government led by Shahbaz as Zardari moved swiftly to impose governor's rule on the largest and wealthiest province, handing over control to a key ally, Salmaan Taseer. The Sharifs have since been staging political rallies across Punjab, rallying support for the protest march with a series of inflammatory speeches denouncing Zardari's government.