Pakistan bans protests ahead of anti-government demonstration

Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan (centre) is set to lead a major protest aimed at paralysing the capital and unseating Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in November.
Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan (centre) is set to lead a major protest aimed at paralysing the capital and unseating Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in November. PHOTO: EPA

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan on Thursday (Oct 27) banned all public gatherings in Islamabad for two months, setting the stage for confrontation ahead of a major protest aimed at paralysing the capital and unseating Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The premier is under growing pressure from opposition parties over his children's offshore bank accounts that were revealed in the Panama Papers leak.

Former cricketer turned opposition leader Imran Khan, who is due to lead the protest on Nov 2, has demanded Sharif stand down over the revelations.

"This will be a decisive and historic gathering, people will come together with resolve to hold the prime minister accountable," Khan told reporters.

However, there will be a heavy police presence in Islamabad to deter protesters with confrontation now appearing inevitable.

Khan led a previous mass protest in the summer of 2014 that lasted four months, allying himself to populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri to back a sit-in in front of parliament calling for the government to resign over election rigging allegations.

A notification banned gatherings for two months because protests were "likely to threaten public peace and tranquility, cause public annoyance or injury, endanger human life and safety".

The planned protest comes at a sensitive time for Sharif, with Pakistan's Supreme Court due to start hearing a case into the Panama Papers revelations about Sharif's family involvement on Nov 1.

Sharif government's relationship with the all-powerful army is also at a low ebb following the publication of an embarrassing report this month that said civilian officials had clashed with the military over its alleged covert support for proxy fighters.

The army has used the pretext of civil unrest to unseat governments three times in Pakistan's history and some analysts believe Sharif may be forced to strike a deal that would appease the military to ensure his survival.

"The severity of the threat to Sharif is a product of the civil-military divide," said The News columnist Mosharraf Zaidi, adding the military would like to see the government fire officials responsible for the leaked report.

"If he survives with his cabinet as is, it will represent a major victory for him. If he is forced to sacrifice members of cabinet to assuage challengers to his government - he will be seen as having been weakened," said Zaidi.

Security analyst Imtiaz Gul said the military would also like Sharif to pick a successor to army chief Raheel Sharif it approves of when his term ends in November.