Political crisis in Pakistan deepens

Lawyers, protesters arrested

nations urge end to emergency rule

November 06, 2007|By Kim Barker

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani police and soldiers quashed planned protests against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf yesterday, rounding up lawyers, blocking access to the Supreme Court and beating protesters in several cities, as the country's political crisis deepened and the international community urged him to lift emergency rule.

The worst clashes erupted in the eastern city of Lahore, where police fired tear gas and clubbed hundreds of protesting lawyers who fought back with stones and tree branches. The number of lawyers, human rights activists and Musharraf political foes arrested or placed under house arrest rose to nearly 2,000 since the army general suspended the constitution Saturday.

With President Bush and other Western leaders urging a return to democracy as soon as possible, government officials indicated yesterday that January parliamentary elections might not be delayed as originally announced. But it was unclear how long Musharraf intends to keep Pakistan under emergency rule, which many critics have likened to martial law, or what it ultimately will mean for the country's stability and role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Some analysts said emergency rule will worsen Pakistan's problems, create more hurdles for the anti-terror war, more opposition to the military and possibly a rise in Islamic militancy, especially in the border areas where al-Qaida and Taliban supporters hold sway.

"For people who live there, it will be a choice between the militants and the military," said retired Gen. Talat Masood, a defense and political analyst, adding that most people are opposed to emergency rule. "For even the moderates it will be a dilemma."

Other analysts said the role of Musharraf's fellow generals will be crucial, speculating that the country's powerful military could decide to step in to end the crisis by asking Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless 1999 military coup, to step down as army chief.

Musharraf could decide on his own to end emergency rule , give up his controversial second role as army chief and hold elections as planned, some analysts said. But he would have achieved one of his major goals: purging Pakistan's newly independent judiciary, which has challenged him in recent months and could have blocked his hold on power.

The international community strongly urged the government to reconsider yesterday. The U.S. said Sunday it was "reviewing" its aid to Pakistan but indicated yesterday that it probably would continue sending billions of dollars to Pakistan's military, which the Bush administration considers crucial to battling Islamic radicals.

In his first public remarks on the Pakistani crisis, Bush said in Washington that the U.S. expects Musharraf to remove his uniform as promised and to hold elections "as soon as possible," but gave no indication that the general's imposition of emergency rule would bring about any significant change in American policy.

"All we can do is continue to work with the president to make it abundantly clear the position of the United States," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office. "We made it clear to the president that we hoped he wouldn't declare the emergency that he's declared, and at the same time we want to continue working with him to fight these terrorists."

Britain announced it also is reviewing its aid package to Pakistan. The Dutch government yesterday became the first country to suspend aid to Pakistan. The European Union said its members are considering "possible further steps" but did not elaborate. The United Nations secretary-general urged the Pakistani government to release detainees, end restrictions on television stations and take steps to return to democratic rule. Only state-run TV stations have been allowed to broadcast since Saturday.

Musharraf told foreign envoys in Islamabad that he is committed to completing the transition from military rule to democracy. He said the senior judiciary in Pakistan had "paralyzed various organs of the state and created impediments in the fight against terrorism," the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

The call to impose emergency rule is Musharraf's most extreme move in a year of challenges.

He has weathered a crisis sparked when he unsuccessfully tried to fire the country's chief justice in March. He has faced rising calls to step down as army chief and pledged to take off his uniform. He has faced growing complaints at home for supporting the U.S. and the war on terrorism, as Islamic militants have stepped up their insurgency.

Musharraf said he declared the emergency because of the rising threat of Islamic militants and interference by the judiciary.

But critics believe Musharraf wanted to pre-empt a ruling by the Supreme Court, expected next week, that could have nullified his recent election to another five-year presidential term.

Over the weekend, Musharraf dismissed independent judges and forced others to sign a new oath to him. He fired the chief justice and placed him under house arrest. The president of the Supreme Court Bar Association is in solitary confinement.

Government officials said up to 1,800 people had been detained nationwide. Opposition leaders said at least 2,300 of their supporters had been detained.

With many lawyers who have been leading protests in jail, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said her party will hold a rally Friday in Rawalpindi. She is trying to gather support from other parties with an eye to forming a joint opposition, said Abida Hussain, a leading member of the Pakistani People's Party.

"She wants to organize a resistance," Hussain said.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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