Police, lawyers clash over state of emergency in Pakistan

Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Pakistani lawyers were arrested Monday as they protested against Pakistan's ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf for imposing a state of emergency in Lahore, Pakistan. Police, swinging batons and firing tear gas, clashed with the lawyers. (K.M. Chaudary ~ Associated Press)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Police fired tear gas and clubbed lawyers protesting against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule Monday. The U.S. and other nations called for elections to be held on schedule and said they were reviewing aid to Pakistan.

In the largest protest in the eastern city of Lahore, lawyers dressed in black suits and ties chanted "Musharraf Go!" as they defied the government's ban on rallies. Some fought back with stones and tree branches.

The crackdown mainly targeted Musharraf's most potent critics -- the judiciary and lawyers, independent television stations and opposition activists. Opposition groups said 3,500 had been arrested, though the government reported half that total.

President Bush urged Musharraf to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled in January and relinquish his army post as soon as possible. "Our hope is that he will restore democracy as quickly as possible," Bush said.

Court opposition

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and is also head of Pakistan's army, suspended the constitution Saturday ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on whether his recent re-election as president was legal. He ousted seven independent-minded Supreme Court judges, put a stranglehold on independent media and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent.

The court has emerged as the chief check on Musharraf, who has been promising democracy ever since he seized power. The judiciary has proved surprisingly independent for a country that has been under military rule for most of the 60 years since it was founded.

The emergency decree appeared aimed primarily at heading off any Supreme Court challenge to Musharraf prolonging his eight-year rule.

The opposition has been demanding Musharraf relinquish his post as army chief and says he should be disqualified because he contested the presidential vote as army chief.

Media, lawyers targeted

Musharraf has also moved quickly to control the media, which he said was partly to blame for the current crisis. Authorities have blacked out TV networks and threatened broadcasters with jail time, but so far have spared the Internet and most newspapers. Most people in Pakistan, where illiteracy is rife, get their news from TV or radio.

Police raided and briefly sealed a printing press belonging to Pakistan's largest media group Monday. They also tried to storm a press club in Karachi. Broadcasts by independent news networks remained blocked, and domestic transmissions of BBC and CNN went off the air.

Lawyers -- who were the driving force behind protests earlier this year when Musharraf tried unsuccessfully to fire independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry -- attempted to stage rallies in major cities Monday, but the protests were quickly stamped out.

In the biggest protest, about 2,000 lawyers congregated at the High Court in the eastern city of Lahore. As lawyers tried to exit onto a main road, hundreds of police stormed inside, swinging batons and firing tear gas.

International reaction

The Netherlands became the first country to punish Pakistan, announcing a freeze on almost all of its millions of dollars in development aid.

Rice said Washington was reviewing its assistance to Pakistan, which has received billions of dollars in aid since Musharraf threw his support behind the U.S.-led war on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that military aid may not be affected because the Bush administration does not want to disrupt its partnership with Pakistan in fighting al-Qaida and other militants.

Musharraf told ambassadors at his official residence Monday that he was committed to completing Pakistan's transition to democracy.

"I am determined to remove my uniform once we correct these pillars -- the judiciary, the executive and the parliament," he was quoted by state-run Pakistan Television as telling foreign ambassadors Monday.

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