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Hundreds of Opposition Figures Arrested in Pakistan


Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz says up to 500 people have been detained across the country under new emergency laws. The detentions include opposition leaders and human-rights activists. VOA's Barry Newhouse attended several small protests in Islamabad, where even regular Pakistanis were swiftly arrested after criticizing the government.

Police vans filled with officers cruised Islamabad's streets, slowly driving through the largely empty downtown.

Throughout the day, in a few places near government buildings, small numbers of political opponents, rights activists and regular citizens spoke with journalists about the situation.

These two women said they joined up to 50 lawyers and civil servants in the center of the city to speak out against the imposition of emergency rule by President Pervez Musharraf.

"Whatever is being done it is actually destroying our country. Just for one man's rule," one woman said.

Elsewhere, protesters chanted slogans praising Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and insisting they will not be ruled by a government that relies on "batons and bullets."

Protesters chanted while surrounded by more than 100 police. A few struggled as officers tried to load them in police vans. One security official said they were being detained for disturbing the peace.

A recent university graduate from Islamabad, Tasneem Bari, said she thought few people knew about the spontaneously organized protests. She said she did not fear being arrested, but many others Pakistanis are afraid.

"I think the people are worried and they do not really know how the government is going to respond to people being out here - I think people expect to be arrested," Bari said.

Few reporters for Pakistani media attended the rallies, following new laws that puts more restrictions on press freedoms.

Police largely ignored reporters, but security officers openly eavesdropped on interviews.

While speaking with VOA near the parliament building, a civil servant named Iftikar Ahmed motioned to two plain-clothes police officers who edged closer and glared as he criticized the government.

"You see, he may be from some department," he said. "All [these] people are from different departments. The country belongs to them also. It is not only my loss, it is his loss also. Because tomorrow his children are going to suffer the way things are moving."

Ahmed said he wanted the country's legal system to return and for people to be again treated with dignity.

"Human dignity is very important. If we cannot restore human dignity, it means we have failed in our work," Ahmed said.

Minutes later, the plain-clothes officers stepped in and led Ahmed away to a waiting police car.

Police: "He is going to police station Kohesar."
Reporter: "Why? Can you tell me why he is going to the police station."

Local security forces refused to answer questions about the detention. The gathering soon broke-up and police returned to their nearby barricades.