Sunday, November 4, 2007

Activists detained in Pakistan crackdown

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf cracked down hard on opponents today, the second day of emergency rule in the country, and his government suggested that scheduled elections could be put off for as long as a year.

Hundreds of political activists, senior judges and human-rights leaders were rounded up by police. The country's deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was confined to his cordoned-off home, with no one allowed to approach.

Private news channels remained off the air and were told they would be subject to strict new regulations if and when they resumed broadcasting.

"He has a long agenda, a long list," said Ahsan Iqbal, an opposition party leader, referring to Musharraf.

Iqbal, a senior member of the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, fled into hiding just steps ahead of police who came to his home to arrest him.

"This is not going to end any time soon," he said. "Whether in prison or not, it is as if we are all in jail."

Some of the country's most venerable jurists and human-rights activists were among those rounded up and roughly bundled into police vans.

They included Munir Malik, a senior attorney who has been at the forefront of a pro-democracy movement that swelled in recent months, and Asma Jehangir, a distinguished lawyer who leads the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Up to 200 policemen stormed the office of the rights commission in the eastern city of Lahore, arresting all the group's senior staff.

Musharraf, whose popularity and prestige have nose-dived this year, declared a state of emergency on Saturday evening, granting himself extraordinary powers to suppress dissent.

The Pakistani leader's aides said no decision had been reached on how long the state of emergency might last.

"We will see what is necessary," Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters.

The emergency declaration was ostensibly in response to deteriorating security in the face of an Islamist insurgency and a spate of suicide bombings in Pakistani cities.

But most observers were united in the view that Musharraf acted to preempt a potential legal ruling invalidating his election to another term as president while retaining his position as military chief.

The general had promised to step down as head of the army once he was inaugurated to a second presidential term, but there appears to be no prospect of that happening now.

"Musharraf's Second Coup," read the headline in the independent Dawn newspaper. The general seized power in a 1999 coup.

Musharraf has quickly set about remaking the judiciary, only allowing judges who swear allegiance to retain their posts. Five of the 19-member Supreme Court bench have done so; the rest refused.

The high court was to have ruled this week on whether Musharraf's Oct. 6 reelection by lawmakers was valid. That case is now off the docket, court officials said.

Some small street protests broke out today. But most opposition leaders, at least for the time being, refrained from calling supporters into the streets, apparently fearing a bloodbath. Police used batons to break up one gathering of several dozen protesters not far from the presidential compound.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to the country from a brief visit to Dubai just as the emergency order was taking effect, remained largely out of sight in her residential and office compound in the port city of Karachi.

In Pakistan's large cities, many markets and businesses were open as usual. But paramilitary troops patrolled in Islamabad, sealing off most government buildings and other sensitive locations such as the private television channels.

Aziz, the prime minister, acknowledged that about 500 people were being held in what he described as preventive detention. Activists said they believed the figure was much higher.

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