Pakistani President Musharraf declares emergency, replaces chief justice, cuts communications
The Associated Press
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan on Saturday, suspending the constitution, replacing the chief justice before a crucial Supreme Court ruling on his future as president, and cutting communications in the capital.
His leadership threatened by an increasingly defiant court and an Islamic movement that has spread to Islamabad, Musharraf's emergency order accused some judges of "working at cross purposes with the executive" and "weakening the government's resolve" to fight terrorism.
Seven of the 17 Supreme Court judges immediately rejected the emergency, 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.
In an address to the nation late Saturday on state-run television, Musharraf said Pakistan was at a "dangerous" juncture, its government threatened by Islamic extremists. He said he hoped democracy would be restored following parliamentary elections.
"But, in my eyes, I say with sorrow that some elements are creating hurdles in the way of democracy," said Musharraf, who was wearing civilian clothes and spoke firmly and calmly. "I think this chaos is being created for personal interests and to harm Pakistan."
The order drew swift complaints from the United States and Britain — Musharraf's main Western allies. 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.
Musharraf claimed that 61 terrorists have been freed on order from the court — an apparent reference a case that has been led by the now-deposed chief justice to press authorities over suspects held by intelligence agencies without charge.
"Extremists are openly roaming," he said "And no one knows whether any of the these freed men were behind recent bomb attacks."
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a longtime rival of Musharraf who recently returned from eight years of exile, flew back to Pakistan from Dubai where she was visiting family. She left the airport under police escort; her house was surrounded by paramilitary troops.
After her arrival at Karachi's Airport, Bhutto said 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 by telephone. "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."
The government halted all television transmissions in major cities other than state-controlled Pakistan TV. Telephone service in the capital, Islamabad, was cut.
Musharraf said some independent TV channels had contributed to the uncertainty in the country.
In justification, the emergency order obtained by The Associated Press said "the constitution provides no solution for this situation, there is no way out except through emergent and extraordinary measures," it said.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has been a close ally of the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has struggled to contain spreading Islamic militancy that has centered along the Afghan border and spread to the capital and beyond. Hundreds have died in recent weeks.
Pakistanis have increasingly turned against the government of Musharraf, who failed earlier this year to oust Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry — the chief justice replaced Saturday.
It was not clear whether U.S. officials had advance knowledge of Saturday's action.
Rice said that to her knowledge, U.S. officials had yet to hear directly from Musharraf after his declaration. She said she last spoke with Musharraf a couple days ago but that other U.S. officials had made the American position clear to him more recently.
Rice would not detail the conversations, but did say the U.S. told Pakistani leaders that "even if something happens, that we would expect the democratic election to take place because Pakistan has got to return to a constitutional order as soon as possible, and Pakistanis have to have a prospect of free and fair elections."
Crucial parliamentary 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 Supreme Court has emerged this year as the main check on Musharraf's dominance and is due to issue a verdict on whether he could run for president while still serving as army chief before his current term expires Nov. 15.
Most analysts thought Musharraf was on shaky legal ground in his re-election by lawmakers last month — a vote that was boycotted by most of the opposition — but they still expected the court to rule in his favor to prevent further destabilizing Pakistan.
However in recent days some judges had made comments that they would not be swayed by threats from senior officials that an emergency might be declared if the court ruled against the general.
The seven Supreme Court judges rejected the declaration of emergency and ordered top officials, including the prime minister, and military officers not to comply with it. The two-page ruling said there were no grounds for an emergency "particularly for the reasons being published in the newspapers that a high profile case is pending and is not likely to be decided in favor of the government."
At least seven trucks brought armed police and paramilitary ranger troops to Constitution Avenue that passes in front of the court, Parliament and the official residences of the president and prime minister.
Paramilitary troops behind rolled barbed wire blocked access to an official compound housing lawmakers — barring even wives, children and even a ruling party senator from entering.
Bhutto, seen by many supporters as key to a possible return to democracy, went to Dubai after being targeted by assassins in Pakistan last month. Suicide bombers attacked her homecoming parade after eight years in exile, killing more than 140 people.
Musharraf's order allows courts to function but suspends some fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, including freedom of speech. It also allows authorities to detain people without informing them of the charges.
The emergency was expected to be followed by arrests of lawyers and other perceived opponents of the government, including civil society activists and possibly even members of the judiciary itself, a ruling party lawmaker said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Private Geo TV reported the arrest of the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan — a lawyer for Chaudhry in the case that led to his reinstatement in July.
With telephone lines cut, it was not possible to contact government spokesmen for confirmation.
Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who was deported in September as he tried to return from exile, condemned the emergency and said Musharraf should resign. He also urged the people of Pakistan to rise against Musharraf.
"If you don't do it today, it will too late then," he told Geo TV from Saudi Arabia.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company