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Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Clashes mark protest in Pakistan

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Protesters clash with police outside the high court

Police in the Pakistani city of Karachi have used sticks to beat up protesters as lawyers and political activists began an anti-government protest march.

Organisers intend the four-day march from cities across Pakistan to culminate in a sit-in at the parliament in the capital, Islamabad, on Monday.

They want President Asif Ali Zardari to fulfil a pledge to reinstate all judges sacked under his predecessor.

The government says the march is aimed at destabilising the country.

Police say they have arrested more than 400 opposition activists in the past few days.

The authorities have also banned political gatherings across the country, saying they could trigger bloodshed.

More arrests

Lawyers had been entering the Sindh High Court complex in Karachi in ones and twos since the morning to get around the ban.

Pakistani lawyers shout slogans during a protest before the start of a long march in Karachi on March 12, 2009

Hundreds of police and troops were deployed outside the court.

Despite the ban, a group of Jamaat-e-Islami party activists managed to arrive near the court and a scuffle broke out with the police.

The police used batons and sticks to beat back the protesters. Dozens of demonstrators were arrested.

They later made further arrests as the protesters began marching down the main highway on the outskirts of the city.

There were minor skirmishes and some of the marchers suffered slight injuries, but the march was not allowed to proceed down the road.

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan says the situation is very tense. Security forces remain on alert amid fears of violence, according to reports.

Protesters also rallied in the cities of Quetta and Lahore.

Activists believe the ban on political gatherings is a bid to disrupt the rallies, which they are calling the "long march". They have pledged that they will be peaceful.

'Promoting democracy'

The protest follows a heightening of tensions in Pakistan, after a court ruling barring Nawaz Sharif and his brother from holding public office.

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Mr Sharif has backed the lawyers' demand for the judges to be reinstated and has called on Pakistanis to join the demonstration.

"The march is going to be peaceful, it is a march which has been called by the lawyers' community of the country and we are supporting this cause because we think that this march can certainly promote democracy in this country," Mr Sharif told the BBC.

The current president was freely elected but that does not mean that Pakistan was a democracy, Mr Sharif said.

"You can't have democracy without an independent judiciary, without judges who are loyal to the state and we don't want judges who are loyal to one single individual.

"Therefore, I think we need to have all those amendments in the constitution repealed which were introduced by dictator [former President Pervez] Musharraf and we want the rule of law back in to this country. And we don't think without these things we will have democracy back in Pakistan."

'Deepening crisis'

The sackings in November 2007 of some 60 senior judges, including the then-chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, sparked countrywide protests and ultimately led to Mr Musharraf's resignation.

FROM THE BBC WORLD SERVICE

Organisers hope that thousands of people will once again take to the streets.

They say they intend to continue their protest indefinitely in Islamabad until President Zardari acts on his promise to reinstate the judges.

Mr Zardari's critics argue he has not done so because he fears the chief justice could revive corruption cases against him.

The government appears determined to keep protesters outside the capital, correspondents say.

Six months after Mr Zardari took office, Pakistan is descending deeper into crisis, correspondents add.

The country is being affected by the deteriorating political and economic situation as well as high-profile attacks by militants.

Observers add that Mr Sharif's backing of the protesters has turned the march into a power struggle that the country can ill afford, says the BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad.


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