/ 19 November 2007

Pakistan court upholds Musharraf election victory

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Monday rubber-stamped President Pervez Musharraf’s contested re-election victory in October, after he purged the court of hostile judges.

”Five petitions have been dismissed. One is pending and it will be heard on Thursday,” the Attorney General, Malik Qayyum, told Reuters.

The five dismissed petitions were regarded as the main challenges, lawyers said.

The opposition argued that Musharraf’s sweeping election victory in October was unconstitutional, as he should have stepped down as head of the army first.

But the move will do little to temper opposition to Musharraf as he had packed the court with friendly judges when he assumed emergency powers.

One high-profile political opponent, Imran Khan, the former cricketer jailed last week for protesting against emergency rule, was reported by Agence France-Presse, to have begun a hunger strike.

The president said late on Sunday night that he wants a general election on January 8, but he has refused to say whether he will lift emergency rule beforehand.

”Inshallah [God willing], the general elections in the country would be held on January 8,” the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency quoted Musharraf as saying. The report said he had recommended the date to the election commission.

Musharraf’s refusal to say whether he would lift emergency rule before the election was in spite of a visit from the US Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, who warned the president that free and fair elections were incompatible with the declared state of emergency.

Pakistani newspapers criticised Negroponte’s failure to back up the words with some kind of threat unless Musharraf complied.

”To see the US stick it out on the wrong side of the fence will not win the latter any approval with the people of Pakistan,” the leading English-language newspaper, Dawn, said in an editorial.

Negroponte said reconciliation was ”very desirable” between moderate political forces — apparently referring to the breakdown of talks between Musharraf and the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on possible post-election power sharing.

A principal reason for Musharraf to declare emergency rule was to appoint his own men to the supreme court amid widespread expectations that independently-minded judges were about to annul his October 6 re-election.

Once the challenges are struck down, Musharraf has promised to quit the army and be sworn in as a civilian president. However, he has said emergency rule would remain in place for longer, to reinforce the fight against Islamist militants threatening stability and help ensure security for the elections.

The opposition insists that emergency rule be lifted to allow for free and fair elections. Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has threatened to boycott January’s vote. An opposition alliance led by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is due to meet in Islamabad to discuss whether to take part in the elections.

As part of the state of emergency several independent media outlets have been closed, although some have been allowed to re-open in the past few days.

On the military front, the army was expected to launch a major operation to crush a militant movement in Swat, a valley in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) where hundreds of people have been killed in clashes with security forces in recent weeks. Around 80 people were killed in an outbreak of sectarian violence over the weekend in Parachinar, the main town in the Kurram tribal agency bordering Afghanistan, as the security situation in the frontier region continued to deteriorate.

The New York Times reported that the US will step up efforts to enlist tribal leaders in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, using similar tactics in Anbar province in Iraq.

It cited a new and classified American military proposal that would expand the presence of American military trainers in Pakistan, directly finance a separate tribal paramilitary force that until now has proved largely ineffective and pay militias that agreed to fight al-Qaeda and foreign extremists.

The US currently has about 50 troops in Pakistan, a force that could grow by dozens under the new approach. – Guardian Unlimited Â