BY MUBASHER BUKHARI
(Reuters) – Pakistani security forces have arrested dozens of political activists as the government braces for two major political protests in the next week.
The detentions follow calls from both protest leaders this week for the government to resign.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people, has a history of coups and protests. Massive national street demonstrations forced the last military ruler to resign in 2008 and ushered in the current phase of civilian rule.
The current protests are smaller but some in the ruling party have suggested they are secretly backed by elements in the country’s powerful military, which has had an uneasy relationship with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Arrests of activists began on Wednesday. The law minister for Punjab province, Rana Mashhood Ahmad, told Reuters that 32 supporters of activist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri had been arrested.
Qadri has called for a demonstration in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday. He has demanded that the government resign by the end of the month following deadly clashes with his supporters in June.
“We have decided to round up those who intend to take law in their hands,” Ahmad said. “We have received intelligence reports that Qadri’s activists are collecting weapons and preparing barbed sticks to attack law enforcers.”
The arrests follow Qadri’s call on national television for his supporters to attack police in their homes if his supporters are targeted.
Qazi Faiz, a spokesman for Qadri, said 538 activists had been arrested but could not provide names. A security official in the central city of Multan said that at least 56 Qadri supporters were arrested there.
In the eastern district of Pakpattan, about 200 kms (125 miles) south of Lahore, police detained Qadri supporter Ashraf Haidari, his 21-year-old son Abrar Haidari told Reuters.
“They broke the door and stormed in. My father was resting in his room. Police did not allow him to wear his shirt and dragged him out of house and took him to some unknown place,” he said.
A second protest is due to be held on August 14, led by famed former cricketer turned reformist opposition leader Imran Khan. He has also called for the government to resign and plans to lead a motorcade from Lahore into the capital of Islamabad.
Anila Khawaja, an activist with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, said at least two activists were detained on Wednesday.
Last week, the government deployed troops to guard key installations in the capital. Officials said it was to prevent Taliban attacks, but protest leaders say it is an attempt to intimidate them.