Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in a bid to end an eight-month crisis over his rule stoked by challenges from a hostile judiciary, Islamist militants and political rivals.
General Musharraf said he decided to act on Saturday in response to a rise in extremism and what he called the paralysis of government by judicial interference.
”I fear that if timely action is not taken, then God forbid there is a threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty,” he said in a midnight televised address, after purging the Supreme Court and rounding up lawyers opposed to him.
”I cannot allow this country to commit suicide.”
There were no troops or large numbers of police on the streets of the capital, only the usual bands of labourers and blue-uniformed private security guards walking across deserted roads to go to work. Barricades blocked the main boulevard leading to the presidency building.
Opposition figures have been rounded up and the nationwide crackdown continued on Sunday.
Authorities arrested a top leader of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party and several other opposition figures.
”People will win. Generals will lose. They have to surrender,” Javed Hashmi, a top leader of Sharif’s party, told reporters before being pulled into a police vehicle in the city of Multan on Sunday morning.
There had been mounting speculation that Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, might declare an emergency rather than run the risk the Supreme Court ruling in coming days that his re-election last month while still army chief was invalid.
Though Musharraf had promised to quit the army and become a civilian leader if he was given a second five-year term, the court had been due to reconvene hearings on Monday, and Pakistan’s stock markets fell last week amid the uncertainty.
Musharraf did not say how long the emergency would last, but said he still planned to move Pakistan to civilian-led democracy without saying when elections, which had been expected in January, would take place.
The United States, which has given its ally $10-billion mostly to support the war on terrorism in the past five years, called the measure ”very disappointing”.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan’s internal security has deteriorated sharply in recent months with a wave of suicide attacks, including an assassination attempt on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last month that killed 139 people.
Bhutto flew back to Pakistan on Saturday from a brief visit to Dubai and accused Musharraf of imposing ”mini-martial law” Another leading opposition figure, former cricket captain Imran Khan, was placed under house arrest.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose earlier suspension in March marked the beginning of a slide in Musharraf’s popularity, was sacked, Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said.
The United States, which regards Musharraf as a crucial ally against al-Qaeda in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, had earlier urged Musharraf to avoid taking authoritarian measures.
”This action is very disappointing,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Gordon Johndroe said, calling on Musharraf to hold parliamentary elections in January as planned.
But Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters the emergency had no immediate impact on US military cooperation. ”At this point the declaration does not impact our military support of Pakistan’s efforts in the war on terror.”
Musharraf banned the media from publishing anything that defamed, ridiculed or brought himself, the armed forces or government into disrepute.
He also stopped the media from carrying statements from Islamist militants or their pictures, the official state news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) reported.
Telephone lines in central Islamabad were down, and private television channels were taken off the air.
Pakistan Television said that the Cabinet, national and provincial assemblies would continue to function and that Abdul Hameed Dogar had been appointed as new Chief Justice.
Musharraf’s troubles began in March when he suspended Chaudhry on allegations of misconduct.
Then in July, Musharraf ordered troops to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad to crush a Taliban-style movement based there. At least 105 people were killed in the raid and a wave of deadly militant attacks and suicide bombings followed.
Musharraf also faced a strong political challenge from Bhutto, who returned to Karachi in October from eight years of self-imposed exile, a homecoming marred by the suicide bombing.
On Saturday she went straight from Karachi’s airport terminal to her bullet-proof vehicle, waving to supporters.
Before the emergency, there had been speculation she would strike a deal with Musharraf to share power after the elections — an alliance that had been encouraged by the United States.
She said she believed emergency rule was designed to delay elections by ”at least one to two years”.
Britain said it was ”gravely concerned” by the declaration of emergency rule while India urged a return to democracy.
In Karachi, a Bhutto stronghold, residents were wary.
”In the coming days, Pakistan will only see darkness. With martial law a country can never progress,” said Sharafat Ali, a driver standing outside a shop in Karachi’s business district. – Reuters