Activists send to jail for holding illegal protests

A Mexican standoff in Pakistan

(Reuters) – A court in Pakistan ordered on Saturday that 100 opposition activists be sent to jail for holding illegal protests, prompting a tense confrontation between demonstrators and police in the center of the capital.

Protesters led by Imran Khan, a former cricket star, and Tahir ul-Qadri, a firebrand cleric, have been locked in a bitter stand-off with the government for weeks, refusing to leave their protest camp until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigns.

On Saturday, a crowd of protesters gathered outside a court in Islamabad in a protest against its decision to send 100 activists to jail for two weeks, with some trying to slash the tires of a police van and shouting “Go, Nawaz, go!”

Although the crowd eventually left peacefully after a two-hour stand-off with police, the episode highlighted just how nervous both sides of the conflict remained after talks to resolve the crisis failed several times.

Protest leaders accuse Sharif of rigging last year’s election which brought him back to power in a landslide and say they will not back down until he resigns – a demand Sharif has repeatedly rejected.

“The end of the incumbent government’s rule is near,” Qadri told domestic media on Saturday.

The confrontation turned violent last month, with thousands trying to storm Sharif’s house and briefly taking the state television channel off the air.

Violence in the usually quiet capital has alarmed many people in a nation where power has often changed hands though military coups rather than elections.

The army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history, has stayed out of the conflict, urging both sides to find a political solution.

Yet, some ruling party officials have accused the military itself of instigating the unrest as a way of unsettling Sharif and exerting supremacy over him.

The army has denied it was meddling in civilian affairs, saying it is neutral. Late on Friday, an army spokesman once again repeated that the army had nothing to do with the conflict.

Few commentators think the army wants to seize power again but, even if Sharif survives, he would emerge significantly weakened and likely play second-fiddle to the army on key security and foreign policy issues.