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Pakistan's top judge on Tuesday ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption allegations, threatening to exacerbate political turmoil as thousands of protesters demanded the dissolution of Parliament.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ordered the arrest of 16 people accused in graft allegations over power-generation projects in 2010 and told them to appear in court on Thursday, said a lawyer for the national corruption watchdog.
The Supreme Court order came as thousands of people, led by cleric Tahir-ul Qadri, demonstrated close to Parliament on the third day of a mass protest march, demanding the immediate dissolution of the government.
A general election is due to be held by mid-May, but Qadri has demanded that a caretaker government be set up immediately, in consultation with the military and the judiciary, and implement key reforms before elections are held.
His demands are seen by critics as a ploy by elements of the establishment, particularly the armed forces, to delay the elections and sow political chaos in a country that was ruled by the military for decades.
An intelligence official estimated the size of the crowd at 25,000, which would make it the largest political protest in the capital since the government led by the Pakistan People's Party was elected in 2008.
The order by the chief justice, who has been at loggerheads for years with the coalition government, will heighten an already feverish political atmosphere.
Analysts said the order would not force Raja Pervez Ashraf out of office but said that even if the timing was a coincidence, coming as it did during the protest, it would fuel theories of a judicial-military conspiracy.
Amir Abbas, a lawyer for the National Accountability Bureau, said the chief justice had ordered the arrest of all those involved in the so-called rental power plant case, "regardless of rank".
"The name of Mr Raja Pervez Ashraf, who was then minister for water and power, is also included in the list of accused persons, ... so the concerned authorities have to make arrest lawfully," Abbas said.
But the Pakistani government said on Tuesday that it had not yet been notified in writing of any arrest order against Ashraf issued by the Supreme Court in connection with corruption allegations.
A Cabinet minister said it would wait for official notification before deciding how to respond, but took issue with the "timing" as thousands of protesters led by a populist cleric are demanding the immediate dissolution of parliament.
Qadri's supporters camped out near Parliament cheered and danced when heard of the order against Ashraf.
"This is our first victory. We will stay here until all our demands are met," Qadri's deputy, Sadiq Qureshi, told the crowd.
Ashraf took office in June after the Supreme Court dismissed his predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, for contempt after he refused to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against the president.
(China Daily 01/16/2013 page12)