Bhutto issues ultimatum to Musharraf

Former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto threatened on Wednesday to lead a mass protest march to the capital unless President Pervez Musharraf quits as army chief, holds elections and restores the Constitution.

Bhutto, leader of the largest opposition party and the politician most capable of mobilising street power, gave Musharraf until Friday to comply.

Government officials have said national elections due in January will be held on time and a member of Musharraf’s inner circle said emergency rule is likely to be lifted within two or three weeks. Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said Musharraf will keep it “very short”.

But Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and imposed emergency rule last Saturday citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy, has not yet personally confirmed either.

“We can’t work for dictatorship. We can work for democracy,” Bhutto told an Islamabad news conference after meeting members of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and smaller opposition parties.
“General Musharraf can open the door for negotiations only if he revives the Constitution, retires as chief of army staff and sticks to the schedule of holding elections.”

She said her supporters will begin to march on November 13 from the eastern city of Lahore, capital of Punjab province and the nation’s political nerve centre, to Islamabad to stage a sit-in. “The ball is now in government’s court,” said Bhutto.

Her PPP is also due to hold a public protest rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, on November 9. Police said it will be blocked.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan with Musharraf’s blessing on October 18 after almost eight years of self-imposed exile, amid speculation that she could end up sharing power with him after elections, forging a partnership favoured by the United States.

Courts deserted

Police have arrested hundreds of lawyers and opposition figures and supporters since Saturday, and courts remained virtually deserted across Pakistan on Wednesday in a boycott by lawyers angry at the crackdown.

Musharraf’s main reason for imposing emergency rule and suspending the Constitution appears to have been the removal of judges who appeared hostile to the government, analysts say.

The Supreme Court had been hearing challenges to the legality of Musharraf’s October 6 re-election by Parliament while still army chief. Fears the decision could have gone against the general are believed to have been the main motive for his move.

The only public protests of any size so far have been led by lawyers, outraged by the dismissal of independent-minded judges such as ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is being held incommunicado at his residence in Islamabad.

As arrests have mounted, lawyers’ protests have become smaller and more subdued. Two dozen students threw stones at police at an elite university in Lahore, while about 500 students and lawyers protested peacefully outside the courts in Islamabad.

“He’s a power-hungry megalomaniac. It’s time to fight for ourselves, fight for our country, because they have been suppressing us since we got independence,” Asad Khan, a graduate student at Kings College London, said in Islamabad.

Fewer than a dozen men wearing black waistcoats over their shalwar kameez marched toward the High Court in Lahore on Wednesday, chanting “Go, Musharraf, go,” before being pummelled and detained by plainclothes security officials.


Announcing the emergency and suspension of the Constitution, the general said he was being hampered by a hostile judiciary while fighting rising militancy and asked in vain for Western allies’ understanding.

The US and Britain were joined by the 27-nation European Union in urging Musharraf to release all political detainees, including members of the judiciary, relax media curbs and seek reconciliation with political opponents.

The EU said Musharraf should stick to a pledge to step down as army chief this month and hold elections in January.

The Commonwealth, a 53-nation group of mainly former British colonies, called a special ministerial meeting in London next week to discuss the state of emergency in Pakistan.

The Karachi stock market, which fell 4,6% on Monday, has since stabilised thanks to perceived low prices and a boost to oil stocks from international crude prices. It is still up around 34% since the start of the year.

Washington has said it will review aid to Pakistan, which has totalled nearly $10-billion since the September 11 2001 attacks, but it has yet to come up with a clear stance for dealing with a nuclear-armed country that is on the front line in the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.—Reuters

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