Hundreds of security personnel were placed on alert Friday as the Pakistani capital braced for a rally spearheaded by thousands of lawyers and political activists demanding the reinstatement of more than 60 judges axed by President Pervez Musharraf, reported dpa.
The five-day, cross-country rally, dubbed the "long march," kicked off its final phase Thursday when a caravan of hundreds of vehicles left the eastern city of Lahore. It was expected to reach Islamabad in the afternoon, covering a distance of 270 kilometres in more than 20 hours.
The roads around the parliament building, where the protesters had planned a sit-in; the presidential office; and foreign missions were blocked with cargo containers, concrete blocks and barbed wire although the authorities said they expected the protest to be peaceful.
Dozens of surveillance cameras were installed to monitor the crowd that was to press the 10-week-old coalition government to restore the judges removed by Musharraf under an emergency order on November 3 as the Supreme Court was to rule on his controversial re-election.
The move turned the president into a highly unpopular figure and caused the crushing defeat of his political allies in the February 18 general elections.
Slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif, who is also a former prime minister, formed the government.
Both parties agreed on the judges' reinstatement but later developed serious differences over the mechanics of the move, prompting the PML-N to pull its members from the cabinet in protest.
Junior coalition leader Sharif, whose government was toppled by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, saw off the vehicular rally in Lahore.
"I salute all these deposed judges who refused to bow before a dictator," Sharif told a rally attended by more than 12,000 people. "Pakistan is on the brink of disaster. The whole nation has to rise to save it."
Thousands more lined the streets in Gujrat, 125 kilometres north of Lahore, to shower the convoy with rose petals and wave party flags while yelling slogans like, "Go, Musharraf, go," and "Restore the judges."
"Our struggle is for the independence of the judiciary, for the supremacy of justice and the rule of law," Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior attorney and the head of the lawyers movement, told the roadside rally. "Our struggle is for the upholding of peoples' fundamental rights."
Analysts said a large crowd in Islamabad would create immense pressure on Musharraf to step down.
The rally was initially to pass by his residence in the garrison town of Rawlapindi, which is adjacent to the capital, but the government persuaded the organizers to change the route amid fears that the protesters might surround the building.