Pakistani lawyers and opposition parties vowed to go ahead with a nationwide protest on Thursday, heading for a showdown with the government which has banned rallies and detained hundreds of activists.
The so-called "long march" to press for an independent judiciary could destabilise the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari at a time when Pakistan faces severe challenges from Taliban militants and a sinking economy.
Protesters' convoys of cars and buses were to set off from the southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan for Islamabad, despite a crackdown in which 300 opposition party activists were detained. "It's now a battle of nerves," Ali Ahmed Kurd, president of Supreme Court bar association and a protest organiser, said.
"They're trying to make us scared by such tactics."Let's see who wins this battle." The protesters were expected to converge on Islamabad on Monday to demand the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, dismissed by president Pervez Musharraf in 2007. The organisers plan a sit-in outside parliament, although the government has said the rally will not be allowed in the city centre. Zardari has refused to reinstate the judge.
Analysts say he fears Chaudhry could nullify an amnesty Musharraf granted Zardari and his late wife Benazir Bhutto. His main rival, opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has thrown his weight behind the lawyers, putting him into open confrontation with Zardari. Sharif, who is also infuriated by a Supreme Court ruling which barred him and his brother from office, and which he blamed on Zardari, called the protest a defining moment for Pakistan.
The government has threatened to prosecute Sharif for sedition if violence erupts during the long march. Authorities in Punjab and Sindh provinces also announced bans on protests. The political turmoil has worried the United States, which has been pushing Pakistan to focus on fighting militants holed up on the border with Afghanistan, and which is concerned about further instability in the nuclear-armed country.
"Our biggest concern, of course, is that the situation become violent and then start to spiral downward," a US official, who asked not to be named, said. "What we are trying to do is head that kind of thing off." The United States called for restraint and urged all sides to avoid violence and respect the rule of law, a US embassy spokesman said.