ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Police have arrested more than 300 political party workers over the past few days in a crackdown before a protest planned this week against new government curbs on the news media, a government official acknowledged yesterday.
Opposition parties have said hundreds of their workers have been rounded up in house raids in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province.
The home secretary of Punjab, Khusro Fazal Khan, told the independent channel GEO Television that police had arrested 312 local political leaders and workers throughout the province.
Opposition legislators protested the arrests at the opening of a new session of the national Parliament, which had been on a three-week recess, but they were refused time by the speaker. Journalists covering Parliament staged a rowdy protest in the press gallery yesterday evening, interrupting debate on the floor.
The president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, signed a decree Monday giving a government regulating agency stronger powers over the news media and the authority to rewrite regulations without recourse to Parliament.
The decree added to the pressure on the three main private TV channels, which have been told to stop live coverage and live political talk shows. Their transmissions were blocked for several days across much of the country.
Journalists and editors said the government was cracking down to prevent critical coverage of Musharraf's suspension of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and of the violence in Karachi related to his ouster. Forty-eight people were killed there May 12 as police officers and rangers stood by.
Opposition parties allege that much of the shooting was conducted by the Muttahida Quami Movement, a partner in the governing coalition, and television images backed up their claims. Thousands flocked to rallies Saturday in the north of Punjab to greet the chief justice.
"There was a crackdown in the whole of Punjab," said Pervez Ashraf, a member of Parliament for the People's Party of Pakistan, the main opposition group, of the detentions. "They entered houses by breaking doors, and hundreds of people were arrested."
Another legislator, Liaqat Baloch, from the alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, said: "Our people have been arrested in 36 districts of Punjab."
Fazal Khan, the home secretary, said those seized were detained under a measure, in force since Friday, that bans gatherings of more than five people. He said the government had to act after journalists protested Monday and burned copies of the presidential decree.
"The government cannot sit idle after burning of the copies of the reference and other official documents, and holding rallies and public meetings by the opposition parties," he said.