Musharraf imposes emergency rule ahead of court ruling

Pakistani president blames move on rising Islamic extremism; former PM Bhutto flies back to Karachi, says emergency "blackest day" in Pakistan's history.

musharraf 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
musharraf 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Gen. Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan's constitution and deployed troops in the capital, declaring rising Islamic extremism forced him to take emergency measures that included replacing the nation's chief judge and blacking out the independent media that refused to support him. By early Sunday cell phone service appeared to have been restored, but landlines were still dead after being cut on Saturday. Transmissions by TV networks remained off the air in major cities other than state-controlled Pakistan TV. Paramilitary troops swarmed around the Supreme Court and parliament and erected road blocks and barred access to the official residences of lawmakers and judges. The US-allied leader detained opposition activists despite calls from Washington and other Western allies not to take authoritarian measures. Washington expressed deep concern and called for him to restore democracy, but said it would not affect US military support of Pakistan. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who had traveled abroad in the wake of an Oct. 18 suicide attack that narrowly missed her but killed 145 others, immediately flew back to the southern city of Karachi, and declared the emergency was the "blackest day" in Pakistan's history. In a televised address, Musharraf, looking somber and composed, said Pakistan was at a "dangerous" juncture, its government threatened by Islamic extremists. "The extremism has even spread to Islamabad, and the extremists are taking the writ of the government in their own hands, and even worse they are imposing their obsolete ideas on moderates," Musharraf said, wearing a black button-down tunic rather than his military fatigues. He also blamed the Supreme Court for punishing state officials and postponing the announcement of his recent election win, saying it had "semi-paralyzed" government. The court was to rule soon on whether to validate the result of the vote that opponents say was unconstitutional because he contested the vote while army chief. Musharraf on Saturday replaced the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had emerged as the main check on the president. "Now the time for the action has come. I have carefully examined the situation to see how to stop this downslide. We have to create harmony among judiciary, legislative and executive ... This is how we would tackle the issue of terrorism in a better way," Musharraf said. He said there would be no change in the government and its top offices, and parliament - set to dissolve by Nov. 15 - would complete its term. He did not say when parliamentary elections - due by January - would be held. The emergency comes as his security forces struggle to contain pro-Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants who have gained control of large tracts of the volatile northwest near Afghanistan. Fighting in recent weeks has left hundreds dead, including in the once peaceful tourist resort of Swat, where scores of troops have surrendered to militants who on Saturday raised a jihadist flag over a police station. The violence has also reached major cities with deadly suicide attacks in Islamabad and Karachi underscoring the threat posed by extremists, as well as the failure of Musharraf's administration to combat the threat, despite huge financial support from his key international backer, the United States. The order drew swift complaints from the United States and Britain - Musharraf's main Western allies. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged restraint on all sides and a return to democracy in Pakistan. The United States "does not support extraconstitutional measures," Rice said from Turkey, where she was participating in a conference with Iraq's neighbors. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, however, said the emergency declaration "does not impact our military support of Pakistan" or its efforts in the war on terror. Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and respected analyst, said the emergency declaration was a pre-emptive move in case the court ruled against him. A policy to fight extremism requires the full support of the people, and any action that alienates the people and political forces of Pakistan "will further aggravate terrorism and extremism in the country and slide the country into anarchism," he said. Rick Barton, a Pakistan expert at the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies, said Musharraf's move would likely only postpone his political demise. "He's obviously not very popular, and it's not going to increase his popularity," Barton said. "Unless he develops a new line or is able to be more effective with his old line, he seems to be just buying time, an inevitable delay to his demise." Bhutto, a longtime rival of Musharraf who recently returned from eight years of exile after talks on possible power-sharing, said after her arrival at Karachi's Airport that she did not believe there would be fair elections as long as emergency rule remained in place. "Unless General Musharraf reverses the course it will be very difficult to have fair elections," she told Sky News television. "I agree with him that we are facing a political crisis, but I believe the problem is dictatorship, I don't believe the solution is dictatorship. "The extremists need a dictatorship, and dictatorship needs extremists." Musharraf issued two ordinances toughening media laws, including a ban on television channels to broadcast live "incidents of violence and conflict." Also, TV operators who "ridicule" the president, armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state can be punished with three years in jail. Seven of the 17 Supreme Court judges immediately rejected the emergency order, which suspended the current constitution. Police blocked entry to the Supreme Court building and later took the deposed chief justice and other judges away in a convoy, witnesses said. Pakistanis have increasingly turned against the government of Musharraf, but his Western allies have stuck by him, hoping he can form an alliance with Bhutto to galvanize the fight against Islamic extremism. The elections meant to restore civilian rule are due by January. Musharraf himself was overwhelmingly re-elected last month by the current parliament, dominated by his ruling party, but the vote was challenged. The court verdict is due before his current term expires Nov. 15.