ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s deposed chief justice called on lawyers Tuesday to revolt against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule and a crackdown on the opposition that has left thousands under arrest.
The government considered a delay in parliamentary elections despite Western demands they be held on schedule in January to bring democracy to a nuclear-armed country dogged by political uncertainty and rising Islamic militancy.
Fragile security in the northwest — cited by officials as a reason for the suspension of the constitution — deteriorated further as pro-Taliban militants seized a town from outnumbered security forces.
While Musharraf says emergency powers are needed so the government can better fight Islamic extremists, his crackdown has been aimed at lawyers and liberal political activists opposing his rule. The Supreme Court, in particular, had chipped away at his powers this year.
Judge under house arrest
Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, a figurehead for the resistance, has been under house arrest since Saturday night. But he managed to address hundreds of lawyers using a cell phone from his Islamabad residence, which he said was surrounded by security forces.
“Go to every corner of Pakistan and give the message that this is the time to sacrifice,” Chaudhry said over loudspeakers. “Don’t be afraid. God will help us and the day will come when you’ll see the constitution supreme and no dictatorship for a long time.”
Attorneys gathered at the Islamabad Bar Association cheered.
“Chaudhry! Chaudhry!” they chanted. “Musharraf is a criminal! We will not accept uniforms or bullets!”
Moments later, mobile phone service cut off in Islamabad, but Chaudhry’s message had already been recorded as an MP3 file. It spread swiftly, and local TV stations aired it via satellite. Cell phone service resumed hours later.
After Chaudhry spoke, hundreds of police in the central city of Multan blocked about 1,000 lawyers from leaving a district court complex to stage a street rally in defiance of a ban on protests. Both sides pelted each other with stones and officers swung clubs to scatter the crowd.
At least three lawyers and three officers were injured, some bleeding from the head. Violence also was reported at a rally by lawyers in the eastern city of Gujranwala.
The clashes marked the second straight day of unrest since emergency rule was declared Saturday by Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup. He has ousted independent-minded judges, put a stranglehold on the media and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent.
At least 2,500 held
Many of those detained have been lawyers, who have been in the forefront of protests against the military ruler, but opposition party supporters and human rights activists also are under arrest. The government says about 2,500 were detained; the opposition says 3,500.
The United States and other Western nations have urged Musharraf to stick to the election timetable, but so far no date has been set. They also want the president to fulfill his promise to give up his second post as army chief.
“President Musharraf has made certain commitments with respect to taking off the uniform and to holding elections as scheduled in January. We have, through a number of different means, conveyed to him that we expect him to abide by those commitments,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
A Pakistani Cabinet minister said the government discussed delaying the election by no more than three months, but added that no decision was made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the issue to the media.
Bhutto: Election already delayed
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan last month to lead her party in the parliamentary elections following eight years in self-imposed exile, claimed the government had already decided to delay the ballot by one to two years.
“They have not announced it as such, (but) I know this from the inside,” she told Associated Press Television News, but provided no details of the source of her information.
Bhutto said that “in the given circumstances,” she had no plans to meet with Musharraf, with whom she had been negotiating on forming a political alliance of moderates to compete in the elections.
Musharraf insists emergency rule will allow authorities to focus on fighting Islamic militants who have been increasingly exerting control in areas near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, armed followers of a pro-Taliban cleric seized the Matta region of the Swat Valley, a former tourist destination where fighting has raged since July. About two dozen police officers and several militiamen manning four security posts in and around Matta town gave up without a fight.
“We didn’t harm the police and soldiers and allowed them to go to their homes as they didn’t fight our mujahedeen,” said Sirajuddin, a militant spokesman who goes by one name.
Two Swat officials confirmed the militants’ advance. They insisted on speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to release the information.
Critics: Musharraf trying to retain power
Despite surging militant violence — the government says 157 attacks including suicide bombings have killed more than 600 people this year — many Pakistanis suspect Musharraf’s main concern is clinging to power.
They note the government is taking the heaviest hand with its political opponents. Asma Jehangir, a rights activist under house arrest, said skepticism of the general’s motives also was fed by the emergency being declared the same day that the government let go at least 28 pro-Taliban militants in exchange for 211 Pakistani soldiers captured this summer.
Musharraf’s emergency decree pre-empted a pending Supreme Court ruling on whether it was legal for legislators to re-elect him to a new five-year term as president last month while he simultaneously serves as army chief.
Lawyers led successful protests earlier this year for the reinstatement of Chaudhry after Musharraf tried to fire the chief justice.
However, there is no sign yet that the lawyers’ renewed agitation will spread to enough of Pakistan’s 160 million people to persuade Musharraf to back down. While resentment of military rule has grown, many people are skeptical of Bhutto and other opposition leaders whose stints in power are remembered for corruption and incompetence.
The authoritarian turn has embarrassed even close Western allies, who have justified pouring billions of dollars in aid into Pakistan with his pledges to restore democracy.
U.S. urges elections
President Bush urged Musharraf on Monday to “hurry back” to elections and quit the military.
But there was no plea to bring back the ousted judges, suggesting Washington was still willing to work with Musharraf as a civilian president with sweeping powers.
So far, only the Netherlands has punished Pakistan, freezing most of its development aid. The United States has said it will review the billions it gives to Pakistan, but it appears unlikely Washington will cut military assistance.
Musharraf telephoned two key Democrats in the U.S. Congress, where some American are calling for aid to Pakistan to be cut off or restricted until he restores democracy.
Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he told Musharraf it was critical for Pakistan to hold elections in January as planned. Biden said he also told the general that he should “take off his uniform.”
Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declined to comment about his conversation with Musharraf.
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