Pakistan’s top judges demand arrest of premier

Pakistan’s top court has ordered the arrest of the prime minister in a corruption case, adding to the country’s political turmoil .

The Supreme Court’s order was related to a case involving private power stations. The judges are investigating allegations that the bidding process was marred by corruption.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered the arrest of several people involved in the case, including prime minister Pervaiz Ashraf, who previously served as minister for water and power.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

An adviser to the prime minister, Fawad Chaudhry, said the country’s attorney general, Irfan Qadir, called Mr Ashraf to notify him that the chief justice had suggested he be arrested during a hearing into the case.

The adviser said any attempt to arrest the prime minister would be unconstitutional since he enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.

The court developments could provide ammunition for Tahir-ul-Qadri, a fiery Muslim cleric who is leading a massive protest rally in Islamabad to press for the removal of the government, which he claims is made up of thieving politicians.

The dramatic entry into Pakistani politics of Mr Qadri, a preacher who until recently lived in Canada, has sparked concern from some that he is seeking to derail elections at the behest of the powerful army. Polls are expected this spring.

Mr Qadri has denied that and insisted his vague demands for election reform are simply meant to root out corruption in the political system. He pledged several weeks ago to lead a “million-man march” on Islamabad to press his demands.

During a 40-minute speech delivered behind bullet-proof glass yesterday, Mr Qadri told his supporters that the government’s mandate was finished.

“I give you time until tomorrow to dissolve national and all four provincial assemblies otherwise the nation will dissolve them on their own,” he said.

Mr Qadri called on the demonstrators to break through the containers blocking them from the government offices and peacefully march toward the protected enclave that is often called the “red zone” in Islamabad.

Following his cry, some of the marchers pushed aside shipping containers that had been placed on the street to block them and walked toward the enclave. There another row of shipping containers and a heavy police presence blocked them from going any further and the protesters appeared to stop. There were no clashes with security authorities and the rally appeared to be largely peaceful.

Mr Qadri put the crowd assembled on the main avenue leading to the government centre at four million but far fewer actually attended. One city official put the number of protesters at roughly 30,000.

Many in the crowd waved green and white Pakistani flags and wore buttons emblazoned with the cleric’s picture.

Mr Qadri has called for vaguely-worded reforms to the electoral system such as making sure candidates for office are free of corruption. His words have inspired many Pakistanis who are frustrated with a government that they say has given them nothing but unemployment, electricity blackouts, and terror attacks as its five-year term comes to an end.

“There is no electricity and no gas, and the government has done nothing,” said Faizan Baig, a 23-year-old pharmaceutical company worker who travelled to Islamabad from the north-west town of Abbottabad.

“Qadri feels pain for the people, while the government feels no pain for the people.”

Security was heavy throughout the city although the rally appeared to be largely peaceful. Thousands police in riot gear protected the streets, and cell phones were jammed after the government warned that militants were planning to attack the protesters.

Mr Qadri returned to Pakistan in December after years in Canada, where he is also a citizen. He heads a religious network in Lahore and gained some international prominence by writing a 2010 fatwa, or religious opinion, condemning terrorism.

But he was never a national political figure until this winter, when his calls for reforms ahead of elections galvanised many Pakistanis disenchanted by the existing parties.

His arrival in Islamabad was met with raucous cheers, and supporters showered his black SUV with rose petals.

Mr Qadri also asked his supporters to take the security of the capital in their hands and guard and protect each of the buildings of Islamabad. The cleric took an oath in front of the crowd that they all will remain peaceful but stay in Islamabad until the revolution is completed.

“They are no more rulers but former rulers. Don’t follow their orders! I have come here to get you out of their slavery,” he said.

Many of the protesters had blankets and appeared ready to camp in the streets.

Some of Mr Qadri’s comments have sparked concern that the cleric is a front for the Pakistani military to disrupt the democratic process just as the country prepares for a historic transfer of power from one civilian government to another.

He has called for a military role in picking the caretaker government that will take over temporarily ahead of elections and has said it could stay in place longer than normal to enact necessary reforms.

Those comments, as well as questions about the origins of his funding, have sparked fears Mr Qadri is really trying to derail the upcoming vote on behalf of the military, which is believed to dislike both the main political parties vying for power, and pave the way for a military-backed caretaker to hold power indefinitely. Mr Qadri has denied any such involvement.