ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Police fired tear gas and clubbed lawyers protesting Monday against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule. The U.S. and other nations called for elections to be held on schedule and said they were reviewing aid to Pakistan.
In the largest protest in the eastern city of Lahore, lawyers dressed in black suits and ties chanted “Musharraf, go!” as they defied the government’s ban on rallies. Some fought back with stones and tree branches.
The crackdown mainly targeted Musharraf’s most potent critics — the judiciary and lawyers, independent television stations and opposition activists. Opposition groups said 3,500 had been arrested, though the government reported half that total.
President Bush urged Musharraf to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled in January and relinquish his army post as soon as possible. “Our hope is that he will restore democracy as quickly as possible,” Bush said.
But there did not appear to be a unified position among senior government officials on whether they planned to hold the election as planned. The attorney general said the vote would take place as scheduled but then conceded there was a chance of a delay. The prime minister also left open the possibility of a delay.
The demonstrations so far have been limited largely to opposition activists, rights workers and lawyers angered by his attacks on the judiciary. There does not appear to be a groundswell of popular resistance and all the protests have been quickly and sometimes brutally stamped out.
The streets of Pakistan appeared normal Monday with people going about business as usual for the most part.
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 recent re-election as president was legal. He ousted seven independent-minded Supreme Court judges, put a stranglehold on independent media and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent.
Musharraf’s leadership is threatened by the Islamic militant movement that has spread from border regions to the capital, the reemergence of political rivals, including former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and an increasingly defiant Supreme Court.
The court has emerged as the chief check on Musharraf, who has been promising democracy ever since he seized power. The judiciary has proved surprisingly independent for a country that has been under military rule for most of the 60 years since it was founded.
The emergency decree appeared aimed primarily at heading off any Supreme Court challenge to Musharraf prolonging his eight-year rule.
The opposition has been demanding Musharraf relinquish his post as army chief and says he should be disqualified because he contested the presidential vote as army chief.
Musharraf has also moved quickly to control the media, which he said was partly to blame for the current crisis. Authorities have blacked out TV networks and threatened broadcasters with jail time, but so far have spared the Internet and most newspapers. Most people in Pakistan, where illiteracy is rife, get their news from TV or radio.
Police raided and briefly sealed a printing press belonging to Pakistan’s largest media group on Monday. They also tried to storm a press club in Karachi. Broadcasts by independent news networks remained blocked, and domestic transmissions of BBC and CNN went off the air.
Protests stamped out
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 the protests were quickly stamped out.
In Lahore, about 2,000 lawyers congregated at the High Court. 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.
An Associated Press reporter saw police bundle about 250 lawyers into waiting vans. About 20 were injured, at least two bleeding from the head, and were treated in a waiting ambulance before being spirited away.
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.
Rana Bhagwandas, a Supreme Court judge who refused to take oath under Musharraf’s proclamation of emergency orders, said he has been locked inside 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.
Chief justice Chaudhry was removed from his post on Saturday, just as the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the validity of Musharraf’s Oct. 6 re-election.
“I am virtually arrested,” Chaudhry said in a written statement, describing the emergency declaration as a “naked attack” on the rule of law.” “The main gate of my residence has been locked.”
More than 1,500 detained
Even lawyers who were not involved in protests appeared to be targeted.
Imran Qadi Khan said police pulled him off a bus near Musharraf’s army office in Rawalpindi, just south of the capital, as he was heading to work.
“We have been sitting here since morning,” he said from prison, sitting alongside other lawyers who stood out because of their traditional attorney dress, black jackets and black ties. “The police are not telling us anything about what they plan to do with us.”
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.
But Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s opposition party, said authorities had rounded up around 2,300 of their supporters. Other political activists, human rights groups, and lawyers added another 1,200 detentions to that toll.
They included at least 173 workers and supporters of Bhutto, who has held talks in recent months with Musharraf over a possible alliance to fight extremism, said Pakistan People’s Party spokesman Farhatullah Babar.
Musharraf’s emergency measures have been met with international condemnation.
The Netherlands became the first country to punish Pakistan, announcing a freeze on almost all of its millions of dollars in development aid.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington was reviewing its assistance to Pakistan, which has received billions of dollars in aid since Musharraf threw his support behind the U.S.-led war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that military aid may not be affected because the Bush administration does not want to disrupt its partnership with Pakistan in fighting al-Qaida and other militants.
The country has been hit by a string of suicide bombings in recent weeks blamed on extremists, including one last month that killed 145.
Britain said it had no current plans to change the $493 million it has budgeted in aid to Pakistan over three years.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed “strong dismay” at the detention of hundreds of human rights and opposition activists including the U.N. expert on religious freedom, Asma Jahangir, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.
President 'determined' to return to democracy
Musharraf told ambassadors at his official residence that he was committed to completing Pakistan’s transition to democracy.
“I am determined to remove my uniform once we correct these pillars — the judiciary, the executive and the parliament,” he was quoted by state-run Pakistan Television as saying.
“I can assure you there will be harmony ... confidence will come back into the government, into law enforcement agencies and Pakistan will start moving again on the same track as we were moving.”
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz left open the possibility of a delay in parliamentary elections that had been expected in January.
“The next general elections will be held according to the schedule or a program that will be finalized after consultation with all the stakeholders,” he said. On Sunday, Aziz said the polls could be delayed by up to a year.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum gave contradicting statements on whether the elections would be held on schedule.
“Yes the elections will go ahead on time,” he told the Associated Press. But then he conceded there was a small chance of a delay because some in the government wanted to put the vote off by a year.
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