Police fired tear gas and clubbed thousands of lawyers protesting President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s decision to impose emergency rule, as Western allies threatened to review aid to the troubled Muslim nation. Opposition groups put the number of arrests at 3,500, although the government reported half that.
Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and is also head of Pakistan’s army, suspended the constitution on Saturday ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on whether his recent re-election as president was legal. He ousted independent-minded judges, put a stranglehold on independent media and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent.
The attorney general called Monday for the polls to be held on time, but Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz left open the possibility for a delay.
Under intense pressure from the United States and other Western allies to hold elections as scheduled in January, Musharraf said Monday he would relinquish control of the military and return the country to “the same track as we were moving” but he gave no indication when the vote would take place.
“I am determined to remove my uniform once we correct these pillars — the judiciary, the executive, and the parliament,” Musharraf was quoted by state-run Pakistan Television as telling foreign ambassadors Monday.
“I can assure you there will be harmony ... confidence will come back into the government, into law enforcement agencies and Pakistan will start moving again on the same track as we were moving.”
Public anger was mounting in the nation of 160 million people, which has been under military rule for much of its 60-year history, but demonstrations so far have been limited largely to activists, rights workers and lawyers — angered by his attacks on the judiciary. All have been quickly and sometimes brutally stamped out.
U.S. wants leader 'to take off his uniform'Secretary of State Condoleezza 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, 2001, attacks.
At a news conference in the West Bank on Monday, she urged the army chief to follow through on past promises to “take off his uniform.”
“I want to be very clear,” she said, as a team of U.S. defense officials postponed plans to travel to Islamabad for talks Tuesday because of the crisis. “We believe that the best path for Pakistan is to quickly return to a constitutional path and then to hold elections.”
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. The country has been hit by a string of suicide bombings in recent weeks blamed on extremists.
Britain said it had no current plans to change the $493 million it has budgeted in aid to Pakistan over three years. However, “the whole world will be watching to see how the transition to democracy that is so important for our own security ... and the security and stability of Pakistan itself is re-established,” said Foreign Secretary David Milliband.
The Dutch government suspended development assistance, becoming the first country to do so.
Aziz left open the possibility that the vote would not be held in January, telling journalists “the next general elections will be held according to the schedule or a program that will be finalized after consultation with all the stakeholders.”
Critics say Musharraf imposed emergency rule in a last-ditch attempt to cling to power.
His leadership is threatened by the Islamic militant movement that has spread from border regions to the capital, the reemergence of political rival and former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and an increasingly defiant Supreme Court, which has been virtually decimated in the last two days.
Since late Saturday, between 1,500 and 1,800 people have been detained nationwide, an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s opposition party said authorities had rounded up around 2,300 of their supporters. Other political activists, human rights groups, and lawyers added another 1,200 detentions to that toll.
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 on Monday, but were beaten and arrested.
Chaudhry was removed from his post on Saturday, just as the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the validity of Musharraf’s Oct. 6 re-election. Opponents say he should be disqualified because he contested the vote as army chief.
In the biggest gathering Monday, 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. Lawyers, shouting “Go, Musharraf, Go!” responded by throwing stones and beating police with tree branches.
Lawyers in the eastern city of Lahore were bludgeoned with batons and then dragged onto a road in front of the high court. About 20 injured were given medical aid in a waiting ambulance before being hauled away in police buses, usually used for transporting prisoners.
“Police also punched and kicked them, despite their age,” Tariq Javed Warriach, vice chairman of the Lahore Bar Council, said in reference to some of the senior lawyers. “They were treated so brutally ... I’ve never seen such a thing.”
Even lawyers who were not involved in protests appeared to be targeted.
One, Imran Qadi Khan, said police pulled him off a bus near Musharraf’s army office in Rawalpindi, just south of the capital, as he was heading to work. “We have been sitting here since morning,” he said from prison. “The police are not telling us anything about what they plan to do with us.”
Another, Mohammad Khan Zaman, said he evaded capture by running to his nearby office. “The police arrested anyone wearing the lawyer’s uniform,” he said, referring to the profession’s trademark black suits.
Musharraf has also moved quickly to control the media, which he said was partly to blame for the current crisis.
Police raided and briefly sealed a printing press belonging to Pakistan’s largest media group on Monday. They also tried to storm a press club in Karachi. Broadcasts by independent news networks remained blocked, and domestic transmissions of the BBC and CNN were off the air.
In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds of police and paramilitary troops lined roads and rolled out barbed-wire barricades on Monday to seal off the Supreme Court.
Rana Bhagwandas, a Supreme Court judge who refused to take oath under Musharraf’s proclamation of emergency orders, said that he has been locked inside his official residence in Islamabad and that other judges were being pressured to support the government.
“They are still working on some judges, they are under pressure,” Bhagwandas told Geo TV in a phone interview.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said Sunday a new panel of Supreme Court judges would rule “as early as possible” on Musharraf’s eligibility for a new five-year presidential term.