President Pervez Musharraf will lift Pakistan’s state of emergency only after changing the constitution to ensure he cannot be hauled before a court, a senior official said Thursday, as lawyers held more protests against the retired general.
Musharraf purged the judiciary, jailed thousands of opponents and silenced television news channels after he suspended the constitution and declared emergency rule on Nov. 3.
The U.S.-backed leader said he acted to prevent political chaos and give authorities a freer hand against Islamic militants, though critics accuse him of a last-ditch power grab before the previous Supreme Court could declare his continued rule illegal.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told The Associated Press that the president, who has acknowledged that he breached the constitution, will amend the charter to protect his decisions from legal challenges.
Qayyum said government legal experts were finalizing the changes and that they would be announced before Musharraf lifts the emergency on Saturday, but provided no details.
“The president will lift the emergency to restore the constitution and the fundamental rights,” he said.
Government accused of stifling media
Qayyum’s comments came a day after Information Minister Nisar Memon rejected claims that the government was trying to stifle the media ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists accused the government Wednesday of “an attempt to silence the free media” by ordering TV stations to stop airing live coverage of political debate.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued a letter Tuesday, addressed to “all satellite TV channels,” saying some were still airing live coverage and taking live telephone calls which “contain baseless propaganda against Pakistan and incite people to violence.”
The letter warned that the channels could be taken off the air and those responsible jailed for up to three years and fined up to $170,000.
“Every one of us in Pakistan should share the responsibility and work for betterment of the country by keeping the environment conducive for the polls,” Memon said.
The threat could dissuade networks from covering fiery speeches of opposition leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, two former prime ministers who recently returned from years of living in exile.
Both Bhutto and Sharif have hit the campaign trail this week after abandoning threats to boycott the Jan. 8 elections.
Sharif drew a crowd of thousands in eastern city of Sialkot on Wednesday. He urged people to reject candidates from the pro-Musharraf ruling party. “I want to eliminate dictatorship, and I cannot achieve this goal without your support,” Sharif said.
Free and fair elections?
The media crackdown adds to concerns over whether the elections, meant to restore democracy after eight years of military-dominated rule under Musharraf, can be free and fair, although the president has repeatedly said that he would ensure “a level playing field” for all.
On Thursday, about 1,000 lawyers rallied in the eastern city of Lahore, chanting slogans against Musharraf and urging a vote boycott unless the government reinstates the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and other independent-minded judges. About 800 lawyers, Islamists and rights activists held a similar rally in Multan.
Musharraf, who seized power in the 1999 coup, stepped down as army chief last month, meeting a key demand of the opposition and his foreign backers.
He was sworn in as a civilian to begin a new five-year presidential term after the Supreme Court, shorn of independent-minded judges under the emergency, dismissed challenges to the legality of his victory in an October presidential election.