Last updated: January 15, 2013 10:55 pm

Pakistan in crisis over PM’s arrest order

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Pakistani Sunni Muslim cleric Tahirul-Qadri addresses his supporters behind a bullet-proof glass at a rally in Islamabad, Pakistan©AP

Tahirul Qadri addresses supporters in Islamabad

Pakistan was plunged into political crisis on Tuesday when its Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Raja Pervez Ashraf, the country’s prime minister, over accusations that he received kickbacks on electricity projects when he was minister of water and power.

The court’s decision added to political tension and posed a new challenge to the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari, who is planning to make way for an interim administration ahead of a general election within the next four months.

Tahirul Qadri, an Islamic scholar and politician, is staging an indefinite sit-in in central Islamabad after arriving in the capital on Monday night with several thousand followers to press for sweeping electoral reforms. Mr Qadri is regarded by some commentators as sympathetic to the army, which has ruled the country in the past.

Pakistan police fired shots on Tuesday to disperse protesters. The country has also been shaken by a series of increasingly lethal terror attacks, including twin bombings in Quetta last week in which 96 people were killed. Most of the victims were Hazaras, members of the Shia Muslim minority that has been targeted by extremists from the Sunni majority.

According to a senior government official, the Supreme Court’s order against the prime minister had to be carried out immediately. “This is a serious setback for the government,” the official said.

A senior official who works under Mr Ashraf said the prime minister – who has not actually been arrested – considered the Supreme Court’s verdict to be “unconstitutional” and was “considering various options to challenge the decision”.

Mr Ashraf became prime minister only last year after Yusuf Raza Gilani, his predecessor, was dismissed by the Supreme Court for refusing to ask Swiss authorities to resume corruption-related investigations into President Zardari.

The latest court decision prompted alarm among equity investors on the Karachi stock exchange. The KSE-100 index lost more than 3.5 per cent of its value within an hour of the announcement.

“For many investors, there is a coming period of uncertainty in Pakistan which has triggered a great deal of nervousness,” said Muhammad Sohail, a senior analyst at KSE.

Mr Qadri, meanwhile, vowed to continue his protest. He is demanding the dissolution of the parliament – even though its term will end anyway in a matter of weeks – and the appointment of a politically neutral caretaker administration to oversee elections between March and May this year. This again is something the government and main opposition parties already say they want.

“All that is needed to win elections in Pakistan under the present system is three Ms. They are money, might and manipulation,” Mr Qadri told his followers to roars of applause.

A previously minor politician from Lahore who returned recently from abroad to launch a well-funded campaign against the government, Mr Qadri repeated his earlier condemnation of civilian politicians who have contested elections in spite of criminal records and well-publicised tax evasion.

“We need a true democracy,” he said. “Today 70 per cent of members of parliament are tax evaders.”

The cleric has promised to turn central Islamabad into Pakistan’s Tahrir Square – a reference to the site in Cairo where opponents gathered for the protests that eventually ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

On Tuesday, thousands of angry Qadri supporters vowed to defy the government and stay on the streets.

“[Mr] Zardari and the rest of the ruling crowd have lost their moral authority to rule,” said Shehnaz Malik, a young woman student clad in a headscarf. “I have travelled more than 300km with five friends to join this event. This is the moment of Pakistan’s revolution.”

Western diplomats said the Qadri protests posed one of the biggest threats to Mr Zardari’s government since he was elected in 2008. “This is clearly Zardari’s most difficult challenge so far,” said one.

In the build-up to the march, police dug trenches around the roads leading up to the parliament, the residence of the president and the prime minister as well as the adjoining diplomatic quarters known as the “red zone”. Army-controlled paramilitary rangers have also been deployed to prevent protesters from entering the area.

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