/ 10 November 2007

‘All this, for one unarmed woman’

Benazir Bhutto was going nowhere. A phalanx of riot police stood at the end of her leafy street, tapping their shields and manning a barbed-wire barricade. Armoured vehicles rolled in.

Officers even prowled the neighbours’ gardens, just in case the opposition leader might vault her back wall. ”All this, for one unarmed woman,” said her spokesperson Sherry Rehman.

In nearby Rawalpindi, where Bhutto was due to hold a mass rally against President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule, the clampdown was even greater. A city of five million people had virtually shut down. Police roamed the deserted streets on motorbikes, horses and by foot.

A straggle of Bhutto loyalists who ventured outside were chased and, in some cases, thrashed. The party said that 5 000 had already been arrested.

The handful that made it to Bhutto’s suburban house in Islamabad, 24km away, were bundled away by plain-clothed intelligence officials. All resisted arrest, waving V-signs to the media as they were carted off. A few took it personally.

”Please tell me why I am being arrested. I have done nothing wrong,” protested Naheed Hayat, a British-Pakistani supporter, as she was shoved into a car.

But there was no rough treatment for Bhutto’s top lieutenants, who sailed past the security and into her tightly guarded house. The contrast underscored the fact that despite her fiery rhetoric about ”military dictatorship”, Bhutto refuses to rule out a deal with Musharraf.

Breaking through

Bhutto made two symbolic attempts to break through the police cordon. At one point more than 100 journalists dashed down a side street, thinking she might emerge.

In the late afternoon, however, she made it to the end of the street, where she delivered an impromptu speech.

”This is not a battle for Benazir Bhutto. This is a battle to save Pakistan,” she declared through a loudhailer, standing behind a coil of barbed wire and surrounded by 50 party leaders.

She was ”very disappointed” with Musharraf, she said, and called for ”the restoration of the Constitution, for General Musharraf to keep his commitment to retire [as army chief] on November 15, and for the holding of elections on schedule”.

But the impromptu speech mostly focused on rising Islamist extremism. Pakistani mountain villages had recently fallen to the Taliban, she warned, and the situation could descend into Iraq-like anarchy.

”We have seen what happens in Iraq. There was a dictatorship, the people revolted, and there was a bloody end … We don’t want the history of Iraq to be repeated here in Pakistan.”

The threat was underscored in Peshawar, 160km to the west, where a suicide bomber attacked the home of the Minister for Political Affairs, Amir Muqam. Four people died; the minister escaped unscathed.

Technically, Bhutto said, she was not under house arrest because the government had not served her with an arrest warrant. ”But I’m illegally stopped from moving by barbed wire and blockades.”

But, in another sign that relations with Musharraf remained alive, the speech was broadcast on state-run Pakistan Television.

Then Bhutto got into her armoured Jeep and drove away, followed by party officials who had earlier vowed to reached Rawalpindi ”at any cost”. The police also turned up outside the house of former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was fired by Musharraf last week and has been under house arrest since.

The police tried to move Chaudhry to the western city of Quetta, but he refused to go. ”He said he was determined to stand with the lawyers until his last drop of blood,” said a lawyer close to him.

Order withdrawn

Late on Friday night, after the United States government urged Musharraf to lift the restrictions on Bhutto, the government obliged. ”The detention order has been withdrawn,” Aamir Ali Ahmed, a police official in Islamabad said.

Critics said the failed demonstration was more political theatre than a genuine attempt to unseat Musharraf. ”Nobody believes this is a genuine protest. She wants to hijack the lawyers’ movement,” said Athar Minallah, a leader of the lawyers’ movement. ”She still wants to negotiate with General Musharraf.”

Another lawyer compared it to a local form of fake wrestling where rivals bounce off one another but rarely strike a blow.

The stand-off certainly paled in comparison with the full-blooded clashes between police and lawyers that have landed at least 2 500 people in jail over the past week, many of them lawyers. And Bhutto’s rhetoric — talks were ”suspended” and there had been no ”direct communication” — suggested a resumption of negotiations is still possible.

The list of world leaders condemning emergency rule lengthened to included former presidents Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter.

Musharraf has tried to deflate criticism by saying promised elections will take place by mid-February. But critics said that without an immediate reversal of the draconian legislation, any polls would be meaningless.

”Nobody’s calling for elections on February 15. People are saying they want the rule of law,” said Asma Jahangir, the country’s leading human rights campaigner, speaking from house arrest in Lahore. ”And if America wants to continue supporting their precious dictator, then I’m afraid the unrest will continue until they back off.”

As evening fell, most of the police around Bhutto’s house moved off, pulling off their riot gear and swinging their sticks. ”A very good day,” commented officer Rast Ali, with a smile, as he strolled down the street. ”We’re just doing our duty. General Musharraf is the one in charge.” — Guardian Unlimited Â