Thousands arrested ahead of a rally in Pakistan
May 4, 2007 - 9:26:22 PM

Islamabad, May 4 - The Pakistani opposition claimed Friday that several thousand activists were detained by the police on the eve of a major rally in the central city of Lahore in support of suspended chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Chaudhry was due to visit the city Saturday to address members of the legal fraternity, which has mounted continual protests since he was relieved of his duties by President Pervez Musharraf on March 9 for misconduct and abuse of office.

'Police have detained 4,000 of our workers so far. Our right to hold a peaceful demonstration is being denied,' a senior leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal alliance of religious parties, Liaqat Baloch, told reporters here.

Another 3,000 workers of the Pakistani Muslim League-N party of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif were also taken into custody, its secretary general Iqbal Jhagra said.

'Around 1,450 of our party workers were arrested in just Lahore city, and another 1,500 in other cities in Punjab,' he said.

However, the provincial government rejected the opposition claims as 'propaganda.'

'Why would we be arresting opposition workers when we have ourselves allowed them to hold a rally? We have no problem as long as they remain peaceful,' Punjab Province Law Minister Raja Bsharat said.

There was no independent verification of the numbers of people being held. Political parties have previously complained of mass detentions before pro-Chaudhry rallies but say their supporters are generally released immediately after the event.

Earlier, authorities advised Chaudhry to fly to Lahore, citing security risks if he travels by road.

The judge's lawyers dismissed this as an attempt to disrupt a string of other rallies organized by the opposition and lawyers in almost every town as Chaudhry drives almost 300 km from Islamabad to Lahore.

'We have decided to go by road and have no intention of changing our schedule. The authorities have been informed about this,' defence counsel Aitzaz Ahsan said.

The judge in recent weeks made a number of such appearances in cities across the country, boosting what is seen by political analysts as a growing political movement against Musharraf's authority.

Many Pakistanis regard Chaudhry's suspension as retribution for his earlier decisions that went against the government, including the prevention of a major steel privatisation in Karachi and the exertion of pressure on intelligence agencies to locate dozens of victims of 'forced disappearances'.

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