Pakistan police use tear gas on lawyers

Pakistan police used tear gas and batons on Monday against lawyers protesting at President Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule and detentions mounted, prompting Washington to postpone defence cooperation talks.

Musharraf cited spiralling militancy and hostile judges to justify Saturday’s action, and slapped reporting curbs on the media in a bid to stop outrage spilling onto the streets amid Pakistan’s biggest crisis since he took power in a 1999 coup.

General Musharraf’s move heightened a sense of uncertainty in nuclear-armed Pakistan and he had to shoot down rumours sweeping the country on Monday that he had been put under house arrest.

“It is a joke of the highest order,” Musharraf told Reuters from the Presidency building in Islamabad where he had just met more than 80 foreign diplomats to explain his decision. He said he was due to play tennis later in the day.

Police baton-charged dozens of lawyers outside the High Court in the economic capital, Karachi, and used tear gas against lawyers in the eastern city of Lahore after they ransacked the office of the Punjab chief justice who sided with the government.

Police arrested about 200 lawyers in Lahore’s High Court compound and dozens more in Karachi.

“We are not scared of these arrests. We will continue our fight, come what may,” Karachi lawyer Abdul Hafeez told Reuters as police shoved him into a car.

Judges incommunicado

Police were holding several judges incommunicado at their homes after they refused to back emergency rule.

Among them was Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who became a symbol of resistance to Musharraf’s rule after defying pressure to quit in March.
The Supreme Court subsequently reinstated him.

The arrests came after a main Islamist opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami, said authorities had detained 600 to 700 of its supporters in southern and central provinces overnight.

Authorities had already arrested 400 to 500 political opponents and opposition lawyers as a “preventive” measure.

“Pakistan is a country of great strategic importance to the United States and a key partner in the war on terror. However, the actions of the past 72 hours have been disturbing,” United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to China as the Pentagon postponed defence talks with Pakistan due this week.

Pakistan shares were down around 4,7%, compounding losses incurred last week as talk of impending emergency rule swirled. Credit default swaps eased and analysts said the uncertainty would put bonds under pressure.

“It is a shock from the market’s perspective. Things were going in the right direction and then suddenly you have this complete reversal,” said Dilip Shahani, a credit analyst with HSBC in Hong Kong. “Going back to democracy will take time now. The political landscape is now a lot more uncertain than before.”

Musharraf also suspended the Constitution.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced disappointment with Musharraf in terms seldom heard from US officials more accustomed to praising the Pakistani leader’s support in the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

“The United States has never put all of its chips on Musharraf,” Rice said, urging Pakistan to rejoin the road to democracy and warning that US aid to its ally was under review.

Washington has given Islamabad about $11-billion over the past five years. The US embassy in Islamabad called on the government to free detained lawyers, politicians and rights activists and to let broadcasters resume programming.

Suspect motive

Lawyers, journalists, opposition politicians and ordinary Pakistanis said they believed Musharraf’s main motive in declaring emergency rule was to pre-empt a widely expected Supreme Court finding that the general had been ineligible to stand for re-election as president last month.

“Many people in Pakistan believe that it has nothing to do with stopping terrorism, and it has everything to do with stopping a court verdict that was coming against him,” former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said on Sunday.

Before Musharraf proclaimed emergency rule there had been talk that the two could share power after the elections, so long as he quit the army.

The court had been due to reconvene on Monday to determine the legality of Musharraf’s re-election, but most judges have now been sacked. Chief Justice Chaudhry has been replaced by a Musharraf loyalist.

Security in Pakistan has deteriorated sharply since July, when army commandos stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad to crush a Taliban-style movement. Since then nearly 800 people have been killed across the country in militant-linked violence, which has included 23 suicide attacks.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said that Pakistan was committed to holding elections, but he could not say when. He noted that under the terms of an emergency, parliament’s term, due to expire this month, could be extended for a year.

Nawaz Sharif, the exiled prime minister Musharraf deposed in 1999, said his old foe should quit for the sake of the country.

What Bhutto, who heads the largest opposition party, does next could be crucial. Musharraf allowed her back from eight years of self-imposed exile last month by granting her immunity against prosecution in old corruption cases.

Since Pakistan was formed in 1947 by the partition of India that ended British colonial rule, the country has reeled from one crisis to another and spent half its 60 years ruled by generals. - Reuters

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