ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s top judge ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on Tuesday over graft allegations, threatening to deepen the country’s political turmoil as thousands of protesters demanded the government step down.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ordered officials to arrest 16 people accused of corruption in power generation projects in 2010, including the prime minister.
The Supreme Court order came as protesters led by populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri massed near Parliament on the third day of a march, calling for the immediate dissolution of the government. A general election is due to be held by mid-May. But Qadri wants a caretaker government to be set up immediately, in consultation with the military and the judiciary, to implement key reforms before the nation goes to the polls.
Some critics view his demands as a ploy by certain elements of the establishment — particularly the armed forces — to delay the elections and sow political chaos in the nuclear-armed state, which was ruled by the military for decades.
Security officials estimated the size of the crowd in Islamabad on Tuesday at between 25,000 and 50,000, which would make it the largest political protest the capital has seen since the current government led by the Pakistan People’s Party was elected in 2008.
Opposition politician Imran Khan called on President Asif Ali Zardari to resign immediately and for the government to announce a date for elections.
The Supreme Court order signed by the chief justice, who has been at loggerheads for years with Zardari’s government, will heighten an already feverish political atmosphere. The order instructed officials to arrest “without any hesitation” those accused in the case and for the chairman and officials from the National Accountability Bureau corruption watchdog to report to the court Thursday.
Analysts said the ruling would not force Ashraf out of office. But they warned that even if the timing was a coincidence, coming at the same time as the protest, it would fuel rumors about a judicial-military conspiracy.
Under Pakistan’s constitution, people convicted of certain crimes cannot be elected to Parliament. However, senior lawyer Salman Akram Raja said the arrest order against Ashraf will not necessarily bring him down.
“Raja Pervez Ashraf can remain prime minister even after his arrest,” Raja told Geo television. “Ashraf is only facing allegations and if he is detained for some investigation, even then he remains prime minister.”
But political analyst and retired Gen. Talat Masood still called the timing of the court ruling “amazing.”
“It came when Qadri is saying the judiciary is great, the army is great. It is adding weight to the instability in the country. In a way, it is acting as a catalyst for the dissolution of this government,” he said.
Qadri’s supporters, digging in for the long haul with stocks of food and bedding, cheered and danced when told of the order against Ashraf. “We slept under open sky, but we did not feel cold despite severe winter. We want change, and when you are on a mission you forget everything,” Qadri supporter Shabaan Alvi, 57, said.
Qadri’s deputy, Sadiq Qureshi, on Tuesday hailed the Supreme Court ruling — greeted by the crowd with dancing and cheering — as their “first victory” and pledged to stay in the capital until their demands were met.
The main index of the Karachi Stock Exchange fell sharply on news of the court order, losing nearly 3 percent in a little over half an hour. Markets closed early and people went home in panic in parts of the capital, which has a tradition of unrest.
Reacting to news of the arrest order, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the situation as “an internal issue for Pakistanis to resolve, as long as it is resolved in a just and transparent manner that protects the constitution, protects the rule of law.”
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad would remain shut Wednesday for a third day due to security concerns, Nuland said.
Ashraf took office last June when the Supreme Court threw his predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, out of office and convicted him of contempt for refusing to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against the president.
Qadri, a frenzied orator, blames a corrupt government for the ills of a country beset by a fragile economy and Islamist violence. He had led his followers into the capital overnight, the climax of a 38-hour journey from the eastern city of Lahore.
Police earlier Tuesday clashed with stone throwers and protesters brandishing sticks, shooting into the air and firing tear gas. Eight officers were injured. Organizers of the rally accused police of opening fire and of attempting to arrest Qadri, whose demands have been called anticonstitutional by the government.
On Wednesday, the protesters rallied for a third day in the capital, renewing their calls on the government to quit, as tens of thousands of Qadri’s followers massed near Parliament House.