A day after president Pervez Musharraf reasserted control over Pakistan by declaring a state of emergency, security forces patrolled the streets of the country Sunday, rounding up key critics of the government.
According to reports, hundreds of people, including opposition politicians and lawyers who took part in vocal protests against Musharraf's rule earlier this year, are in custody. Among them: cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Javed Hashmi, acting chief of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. At least one television station, Aaj TV, was raided.
"We are back to square one," Dawn newspaper said in an editorial. "Back to Oct. 12, 1999. All the gains over the years have gone down the drain," it said, referring to the date Musharraf took control of Pakistan.
Nov. 3 "will go down as another dark day in Pakistan's political and constitutional history," The News said Sunday, joining the international condemnation of the crackdown.
Musharraf decided to declare an emergency and install a provisional constitution to protect Pakistan's interests, he said Saturday, addressing the nation on state-owned television. The move would ensure Pakistan's transition to democracy won't be derailed by rising terrorism and extremism.
Critics say there's another reason for the decision. Musharraf's term as president expires on Nov. 15 and the Supreme Court was scheduled to rule this month if he is eligible for another term as president. He won a presidential election by a majority in October. The latest move is likely to stall general elections scheduled for January.
Eight Supreme Court judges rejected the emergency as unconstitutional. Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry was removed from office and taken away by the military to an unknown location, reports said. Musharraf appointed a new chief justice. He accused the courts of releasing terrorists, and charged them with fostering a breakdown of law and order. The supreme court building was surrounded by soldiers.
The government shut down the transmission of private media channels and cut telephone services in the capital Islamabad. Justifying a ban on TV stations, Musharraf accused the media of spreading "negativism." He restricted them from expressing any opinion "prejudicial" to himself or to Pakistan.
The bulk of the president's address was in Urdu, but he switched to English toward the end to make an appeal to Pakistan's "friends in the West--the U.S., the European Union and the Commonwealth." Musharraf asked for understanding of the "critical situation" the nation was in.
"Please do not expect or demand your level of democracy, which you learned over a number of centuries. Please also do not demand or expect your number of civil rights, human rights or civil liberties … Please give us time. For me and every Pakistani, Pakistan comes first," Musharraf said, comparing his actions with those of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln to preserve the union.
A wave of Islamist militancy in the country claimed hundreds of lives in the last few weeks. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan last month was marked by a suicide bombing which killed 139 people. After news of the emergency broke Saturday, Bhutto returned to Pakistan from Dubai.
She was welcomed by throngs of supporters when she arrived in the business district of Karachi. After Musharraf's address, she said the president had imposed martial law by putting the constitution in abeyance and taking complete control of the nation.
"This is a situation worse than an emergency. The people of Pakistan will not accept this," Bhutto said, accusing Musharraf of taking the step to pre-empt a likely court ruling against his presidency.
Former Prime Minister Sharif also slammed the move. He'd attempted to return to Pakistan in September, but was deported to Saudi Arabia by the general. "We have not witnessed such a grave situation in the 60 years of Pakistan's history," Sharif told an Indian news channel.
Some Pakistani citizens indicated the move could help the nation, though it was a blow for civil rights. "It's very quiet on the streets of Karachi," Mahim Rehman, head of research at DLA Capital, said late Saturday. "Over the last week, we had an indication this could happen because of the worsening law and order situation and speculation that the Supreme Court would rule against Musharraf's presidency. If Musharraf seems to be in control again, that will be seen a positive sign." Musharraf said a rise in extremism was hurting foreign investment.
Musharraf has been under pressure from the international community to restore democracy through nationwide elections. International reaction to the crackdown was swift.
"It's highly regrettable that Pakistan's president has declared a state of martial law," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday. "The U.S. does not support extra constitutional measures." American officials reportedly made requests to Musharraf not to impose emergency rule this week, indicating it could jeopardize U.S. financial support for his military.
"We regret the difficult times that Pakistan is passing through," neighboring India's external affairs ministry said in a statement. "We trust that conditions of normalcy will soon return, permitting Pakistan's transition to stability and democracy to continue."
In Britain, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "We recognize the threat to peace and security faced by the country, but its future rests on harnessing the power of democracy and the rule of law to achieve the goals of stability, development and countering terrorism. I am gravely concerned by the measures adopted [Saturday], which will take Pakistan further from these goals."