/ 10 November 2007

Pakistan a pressure cooker, says Bhutto

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto described Pakistan on Saturday as a pressure cooker about to explode, as President Pervez Musharraf’s government tightened screws on media by ordering out three British journalists.

Having invoked emergency powers a week ago, Musharraf has sacked most of the country’s judges, put senior ones under house arrest and ordered police to round up most of the opposition leadership and anyone else deemed troublesome.

He has also placed curbs on media. Private news channels are off the air and transmissions of BBC and CNN have been blocked, though newspapers are publishing freely.

”Pakistan under dictatorship is a pressure cooker,” Bhutto said in an address to diplomats at reception hosted by loyalists at the Senate on Saturday night. ”Without a place to vent, the passion of our people for liberty threatens to explode.”

On Saturday, three journalists from Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph were expelled for ”foul and abusive” language about the Pakistani leadership that officials said appeared in an editorial run on November 9. A spokesperson for the newspaper group in London declined to comment.

Bhutto, the Pakistani politician most capable of rousing mass protests, was stopped from leaving her Islamabad residence on Friday to lead a rally in neighbouring Rawalpindi, where police used tear gas to disperse her followers.

A detention order against her was later lifted due in part to pressure from the United States, but when she tried on Saturday to visit Pakistan’s deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest for the past week, she was stopped from approaching his house.

”He is the chief justice, he is the real chief justice,” Bhutto blared over a megaphone, after police trucks blocked her way to Chaudhry’s residence.

‘Long march’

Bhutto plans to lead a ”long march”, actually a mass motor procession, from Lahore on Tuesday to put more pressure on Musharraf to revoke emergency rule, restore the Constitution and the sacked judges, quit as army chief, hold elections in January and release thousands of detainees.

She will go to Lahore, the city where the pulse of Pakistani politics beats strongest, on Sunday, while her party planned protests in her home province of Sindh in the south.

Musharraf cited a hostile judiciary and rising militancy as the reasons for his authoritarian measures. He has sacked most Supreme Court judges and replaced them with friendlier faces.

Critics say Musharraf wanted to pre-empt a possible decision by the court to rule his October 6 presidential election victory invalid because he contested while army chief.

Musharraf has said elections will be held by February 15, about a month later than they were due. He also said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once new judges struck down challenges to his re-election.

The US has kept up pressure on Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, to get back to a democratic path. But US pressure is constrained as Musharraf is a close ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Musharraf briefed army commanders, telling them the emergency had been a very difficult decision but necessary to ensure effective governance, maintain efforts against terrorism and provide for a stable political transition, the military said.

The US is worried the turmoil will hamper its nuclear-armed ally’s efforts against terrorism. Pakistani forces are battling a growing Islamist insurgency along the Afghan border — where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Bhutto told diplomats she feared Pakistan was sliding into instability and that ”dictatorship causes fanaticism”.

”They have exacerbated the situation to an extent where nuclear armed Pakistan is threatened with implosion,” she said, adding: ”The choice must not be between the military or the militants. The choice must be for the will of the people for democracy.”

The uncertainties have unnerved foreign investors and domestic markets.

Political analysts say Musharraf still has vital backing of the army but big street protests could undermine its support.

Bhutto had been holding power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months and political analysts say cooperation between the pair — favoured by the US — could still be possible. — Reuters