The protests were long planned by lawyers pushing for the reinstatement of several judges, including former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who were fired by former President Pervez Musharraf.
President Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, had pledged to restore the judges and create an independent judiciary. The dismissed justices are believed to be hostile toward Zardari and could seek to limit his political power, reported the Associated Press.
The Supreme Court fanned political flames in the country late last month when it banned the head of the largest opposition party, Nawaz Sharif, from elected office because of a past criminal conviction.
All this week, Sharif has been urging supporters to take to the streets and carry out a “revolution” against Zardari, who he has accused of being even more dictatorial than his predecessor, retired army General Musharraf, according to the Washington Post.
“We can change history in seven days,” said Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. “The future of Pakistan is bleak, and the constitution is being violated. The whole country is in the process of disintegration.”
In response, government officials said they were forced to take security measures. “Provincial governments are fully empowered to take action to keep law and order,” Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told reporters, quoted Reuters. “There are security threats.”
Authorities in Punjab and Sindh provinces have announced bans on protests. A senior Punjab provincial official said 300 political activists have been rounded up to keep them from “disturbing the peace,” Reuters reported.
Tariq Mehmud, a senior lawyer and protest organizer, said police showed up at his home in Islamabad before dawn aiming to detain him but he managed to slip away. Another organizer, Aitzaz Ahsan, said police had come to his home as well but he was in hiding, according to the wire service.
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Zardari, said 18 people had been arrested and would be released once things calmed down, reported the AP.
“Some people have announced they are going to defy the ban on public meetings,” he said. “It is sad, but this is what the law says.”
Long-time political rivals Zardari and Sharif had put their differences aside and formed a coalition government in February 2008 after Musharraf’s party lost a parliamentary election.
But Sharif withdrew from the coalition the following summer over a dispute over the reinstatement of the judges.