Pakistani police used tear gas and batons to crush protests by lawyers against President Pervez Musharraf on Monday, despite spiralling worldwide outrage at the imposition of a state of emergency.
The White House said it was ”deeply disturbed” by the crisis, urging Musharraf, a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, to call elections in January and to quit his military post.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the vote would be on schedule, boosting hopes for a smooth transition to democratic civilian rule, but officials earlier said Musharraf’s plans to hang up his uniform were ”in limbo”.
In a sign of the uncertainty gripping the nuclear-armed Islamic republic, the government was forced to deny swirling rumours that Musharraf had been placed under house arrest by his own armed forces.
Dozens of lawyers were wounded and hundreds more arrested as protests erupted outside courtrooms in a number of cities on Monday, the first major show of public dissent since a clampdown across Pakistan on Saturday.
Officials said 1 500 people had been arrested across Pakistan since the weekend. ”Police have detained potential troublemakers, law-breakers and those who defied a ban on rallies,” Interior Ministry spokesperson Javed Cheema said.
The biggest protest was in Lahore, where lawyers with bleeding head wounds were bundled into vans after police fired tear gas at about 1 000 protesters outside the high court, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent witnessed.
In Karachi, police and paramilitary soldiers sealed off the high court and charged at lawyers who were outside the building, detaining another 100, witnesses said.
Clashes were also reported in Rawalpindi, Multan and Peshawar.
”It has never happened in the history of Pakistan that such a huge number of lawyers have been arrested,” said one former Karachi High Court judge, Rashid Razvi.
Musharraf cited growing Islamic extremism and hostile judges for imposing emergency rule in the nation of 160-million people. He suspended the Constitution, sacked the nation’s top judge and brought in strict media curbs.
Police on Monday raided the office of a mass-selling newspaper in Karachi, arrested several journalists and smashed the camera of an AFP photographer during a protest in Quetta.
The Supreme Court was to rule imminently on the legality of Musharraf’s victory in an October 6 presidential election, and government jitters over the upcoming decision are widely thought to have precipitated emergency rule.
With private television news channels still blacked out by the government, the rumour that the deputy army chief had placed Musharraf under house arrest spread fast earlier in the day, but was quickly quashed by the government. ”It’s nonsense, sheer baseless rumour,” Musharraf’s spokesperson Rashid Qureshi said.
Officials said Musharraf had been briefing foreign envoys when the rumours about his arrest started, in a meeting in which he pledged to hold elections at an unspecified time and blamed the crisis on the judiciary.
Premier Aziz later sought to smooth out the government’s rough ride over the vote. ”The next general elections will be held according to the schedule,” the official Associated Press of Pakistan quoted him as saying.
But the chorus of international concern mounted.
”We cannot support a path that does not put them back on the road to democracy,” White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, urging ”free and fair” parliamentary elections in January and calling for Musharraf to ”take off his uniform”.
Perino confirmed that aid to the staunch ally in the US ”war on terror” was under review.
A Pentagon spokesperson said earlier that the United States had suspended annual defence talks with Pakistan because of the political situation.
United Nations human rights chief Louise Arbour on Monday sharply criticised the imposition of a state of emergency in Pakistan and the imprisonment of judges and politicians.
The Netherlands suspended all aid to Pakistan and Britain also said it was reviewing aid to its former colony.
A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spoke with Musharraf on November 1, urged the Pakistani leader to restore the Constitution and hold parliamentary elections in January. — Sapa-AFP