Pakistan leader clamps down

Emergency decree shelves constitution

November 04, 2007|By Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King | Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King,Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in a move long feared by opponents, imposed emergency rule yesterday, plunging the country deep into political crisis and drawing swift condemnation at home and abroad.

Musharraf, an army general who seized the presidency in a coup eight years ago but has seen his grip on power falter in recent months, wasted little time in asserting his broad new authorities.

He sent troops into the streets, expelled Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and jammed private TV channels that have been critical of his rule.

Telephone service in Islamabad, the capital, was cut shortly after the announcement of the emergency.

The declaration, which is similar to martial law, suspends Pakistan's constitution and throws into doubt elections that had been set to occur by mid-January.

The U.S., which along with other Western nations had urged Musharraf not to assume emergency powers, was quick to condemn his actions.

The Pentagon, however, said the declaration does not affect U.S. military support for Pakistan and its efforts in the war on terrorism.

"The U.S. has made clear that it does not support extra-constitutional measures, because those measures would take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters while traveling from Turkey to Israel yesterday. "And whatever happens, we will be urging a quick return to the path of constitutional rule and constitutional order. ... We are urging calm on all the parties."

Musharraf's step came days before an expected Supreme Court ruling on whether his election last month to a new presidential term was valid.

Opponents said the vote should be thrown out because Musharraf, under the constitution, was not eligible to run while serving as chief of the army.

In recent days, Musharraf's aides had appeared to lay the groundwork for an emergency declaration, citing intensified attacks by Islamic militants in the volatile area along the Afghan border, together with a spate of suicide bombings in major cities. Critics said Musharraf was looking for a pretext to assume emergency powers in case the court ruling went against him.

In a televised address, Musharraf, looking somber and composed and wearing a black tunic rather than his usual military fatigues, said Pakistan was at a "dangerous" juncture.

"The extremism has even spread to Islamabad, and the extremists are taking the writ of the government in their own hands, and even worse they are imposing their obsolete ideas on moderates," he said.

Witnesses reported that military vehicles patrolled Islamabad's main avenues and blocked roads including Constitution Avenue, leading to the Supreme Court building. At least some of the Supreme Court justices were believed to be inside the compound.

Musharraf has been considered a crucial U.S. ally since his decision, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to break with the radical Taliban movement and side with the United States in the war against Islamic militants, including al-Qaida.

But many observers have questioned the depth of his commitment to fighting the radicals.

Pakistan's political scene has been increasingly tense in recent weeks. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned from eight years in exile, greeted by a devastating attack on her homecoming procession that killed more than 140 people.

Bhutto and Musharraf have been in power-sharing talks. But analysts said the emergency declaration would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Bhutto, who advocates a return to civilian rule, to cooperate with Musharraf.

Bhutto quickly flew back to Pakistan from Dubai, where she had been visiting family.

Police said they were readying security for Bhutto's arrival and the drive to her house.

Musharraf has conducted large-scale roundups of political opponents, and his foes feared that mass arrests were inevitable. "GOING INTO HIDING," one said in a text message sent moments after emergency rule was declared.

Before going off the air, private GEO television reported that Aitzaz Ahsan, a Musharraf critic and the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, had been taken into custody.

The emergency declaration gives the government the right to suspend basic civil liberties. Judges can be required to take a new oath of office, swearing allegiance to the regime.

Further, the order allows authorities to detain people without informing them of the charges.

Opposition parties expressed shock and condemnation over Musharraf's move.

The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was deported when he tried to return to Pakistan in October, denounced the emergency rule declaration and vowed to resist it.

The Supreme Court immediately issued a ruling, signed by seven judges, saying that the government did not have grounds to declare an emergency.

Lawyers and other opponents gathered outside the high court building, apparently trying to provide protection to the justices inside.

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