Monday, November 5, 2007

Over 1,500 held in Pakistan emergency

By MUNIR AHMAD, Associated Press Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Police fired tear gas and battered thousands of lawyers protesting President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's decision to impose emergency rule, as Western allies threatened to review aid to the troubled Muslim nation. More than 1,500 people have been arrested in 48 hours, and authorities put a stranglehold on independent media.

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and is also head of Pakistan's army, suspended the constitution on Saturday ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on whether his re-election as president was legal. He ousted independent-minded judges, stripped media freedoms and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent.

Though public anger was mounting in the nation of 160 million people, which has been under military rule for much of its 60-year history, demonstrations so far have been limited largely to activists, rights workers and lawyers. All have been quickly and sometimes brutally stamped out.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington was reviewing its assistance to Pakistan, which has received billions in aid since Musharraf threw his support behind the U.S.-led war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

At a news conference in the West Bank on Monday, Rice urged Musharraf to follow through on past promises to "take off his uniform."

"I want to be very clear," she said, as a team of U.S. defense officials postponed plans to travel to Islamabad for talks Tuesday because of the crisis. "We believe that the best path for Pakistan is to quickly return to a constitutional path and then to hold elections."

Britain also said it was reviewing its aid package to Pakistan, and the Dutch government suspended its aid on Monday.

Musharraf reiterated to foreign ambassadors Monday that he was committed to complete the transition to democracy, though, under a state of emergency, elections scheduled for January could be pushed back by up to a year, according to the government.

Critics say Musharraf imposed emergency rule in a last-ditch attempt to cling to power.

His leadership is threatened by the Islamic militant movement that has spread from border regions to the capital, the reemergence of political rival and former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and an increasingly defiant Supreme Court, which has been virtually decimated in the last two days.

Since late Saturday, between 1,500 and 1,800 people have been detained nationwide, an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. They include opposition leaders, lawyers and human rights activists who might mobilize protests.

At least 67 workers and supporters of Bhutto — who has held talks in recent months with Musharraf over an alliance to fight extremism — had been arrested, said Pakistan People's Party spokesman Farhatullah Babar.

Lawyers — who were the driving force behind protests earlier this year when Musharraf tried unsuccessfully to fire independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry — attempted to stage rallies in major cities on Monday, but were beaten and arrested.

Chaudhry was removed from his post on Saturday, just as the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on whether Musharraf's Oct. 6 re-election. Opponents say he should be disqualified because he contested the vote as army chief.

In the biggest gathering Monday, about 2,000 lawyers congregated at the High Court in the eastern city of Lahore. As lawyers tried to exit onto a main road, hundreds of police stormed inside, swinging batons and firing tear gas. Lawyers, shouting "Go Musharraf Go!" responded by throwing stones and beating police with tree branches.

Police bundled about 250 lawyers into waiting vans, an Associated Press reporter saw. At least two were bleeding from the head.

In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds of police and paramilitary troops lined roads and rolled out barbed-wire barricades on Monday to seal off the Supreme Court.

Only government employees heading for nearby ministries were allowed through. Two black-suited lawyers whose car was stopped by police argued in vain that they should be granted entry. They were eventually escorted away by two police cars.

A few dozen activists from hard-line Islamic parties gathered nearby, chanting slogans including "Hang, Musharraf, hang!"

As well as calling for protests, lawyers' groups have vowed to boycott all court proceedings held in front of new judges sworn by Musharraf.

Rana Bhagwandas, a Supreme Court judge who refused to take oath under Musharraf's proclamation of emergency orders, said he has been locked inside in his official residence in Islamabad and that other judges were being pressured to support the government.

"They are still working on some judges, they are under pressure," Bhagwandas told Geo TV in a phone interview.

Authorities have imprisoned or put under house arrest key Musharraf critics, among them Javed Hashmi, the acting president of the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; cricket star-turned politician, Imran Khan; Asma Jehangir, chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; and Hamid Gul, former chief of the main intelligence agency.

Pakistan's largest religious party Jamaat-e-Islami reported that more than 500 of its workers and supporters had been detained since Sunday, including its leader, according to senior members of the party and police.

Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said Sunday a new panel of Supreme Court judges would rule "as early as possible" on Musharraf's eligibility for a new five-year presidential term.


Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Khalid Tanweer in Multan and Zia Khan in Lahore contributed to this report.

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