Pakistani lawyers bear brunt of crackdown

Pakistan’s opposition grappled for a united response on Tuesday to President Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule, leaving lawyers to protest alone for a second day and bear the brunt of a police crackdown.

Ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, though being held incommunicado at his residence, managed to get out a message by cellphone to the lawyers’ movement that has been leading the public protests.

“The Constitution has been ripped to shreds,” Chaudhry said.

“The lawyers should convey my message to the people to rise up and restore the Constitution. This is a time for sacrifices.
I am under arrest now, but soon I will also join you in your struggle,” added the charismatic judge, who defied Musharraf in huge public rallies earlier in the year.

While hundreds of lawyers were detained during clashes with police the previous day, Tuesday’s protests were small and tamer.

Most Pakistanis expressed dismay and confusion over Musharraf’s decision, and are impatient to vote for a new government.

“It just pains me that we’re living in such an unstable and uncivilised country,” said Samiya, a thirtysomething corporate executive in Islamabad, who reckoned Musharraf should have quit rather than inflict an emergency to save his job. “There’s the law of the jungle here.”

While hundreds of opposition activists have been detained, primarily from the party of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Islamist groups, the political parties have yet to order their supporters on to the streets.

Bhutto in opposition talks

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned last month from eight years abroad after Musharraf gave her immunity from old graft charges, flew to Islamabad to consult other opposition leaders but said she would not meet, let alone negotiate with, the military president on forming a caretaker government.

“If I met him face to face, it might demoralise everybody else,” Bhutto told Britain’s Sky Television, adding that meetings in the past had not led to fruitful results. “It’s certainly very difficult to know what General Musharraf is going to do next, because he said one thing, and he says all the right things to me, but what he said did not happen.”

Ahsan Iqbal—a spokesperson for Sharif, the man Musharraf deposed in 1999, exiled and booted out again when he tried to return home in September—said Bhutto would have to give assurances that she had cut links with Musharraf before they could talk of reviving an opposition alliance.

Former cricket star Imran Khan, now a high-profile politician but with only a small following, eluded police on Sunday amid the official crackdown and has vowed to oppose Musharraf from hiding.

In a message passed to Reuters by his ex-wife Jemima, Khan said: “Our aim is to continue the struggle and mobilise the youth of the country from underground.”

When Bhutto landed in Islamabad on Tuesday, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, was swiftly whisked away, waving from the sun-roof of a white bullet-proof land cruiser as about 500 supporters chanted “Welcome, welcome, Benazir, welcome” and “Prime minister—Benazir”.

The United States had hoped Bhutto would end up sharing power with Musharraf after elections due in January.

Musharraf’s move to impose emergency rule has cast US policy toward Pakistan in some disarray. President George Bush, who values Musharraf as an ally in his battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, urged him on Monday to lift the emergency, hold elections and quit as army chief.

Officials have said that regardless of the emergency, elections will take place in January or slightly later, but the general has so far not confirmed this. US ambassador Anne W Patterson called on the election commissioner in Islamabad to urge him to set a timetable quickly to dispel people’s doubts.

Razor wire

The security presence around Pakistani cities is not much greater than usual for a country that has had 23 suicide attacks by al-Qaeda-inspired militants in the past four months—one of the reasons Musharraf cited for his authoritarian steps.

But troops in Islamabad manned razor-wire checkpoints near the presidential palace, Parliament and Supreme Court.

In Karachi, police vetted lawyers trying to enter the High Court, and in the central city of Multan they used batons to beat more than a dozen stone-throwing lawyers chanting “Go, Musharraf, go” before bundling them into trucks, a Reuters witness said.

A dozen more were detained at the High Court in the eastern city of Lahore, according to a Reuters photographer, but a protest by about 200 lawyers in Islamabad passed off peacefully.

Musharraf’s emergency declaration on Saturday was seen as an attempt to stop any chance of the Supreme Court invalidating his re-election as president by Parliament last month on the grounds that he stood while still army chief.

After dismissing judges who were too difficult to handle, Musharraf has been filling the Supreme Court benches with more amenable figures. Four more were sworn in on Tuesday, taking the total to nine—well short of the original strength of 17.

The stock market had dropped 4,6% on Monday—its largest daily fall in terms of points—as emergency rule scared investors, but recovered from an early fall on Tuesday to close up 1,1%.

Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s international credit rating agencies revised outlooks on Pakistan from stable to negative.

“Only time will tell his act was right or wrong, but it’s clear he did it to save himself,” said retired government teacher Syed Sajjad Ali Shah in the north-western city of Peshawar.

With reporting by Kamran Haider and Augustine Anthony in Islamabad, and Imtiaz Shah, Sahar Ahmed and Ovais Subhani in Karachi