Saturday, November 3, 2007

Musharraf Suspends Constitution, Sacks Chief Justice

Nov. 3 -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule because of ``judicial interference'' in his government, snubbing U.S. President George W. Bush's efforts to promote democracy in the world's second-largest Muslim nation.

``Some judges by overstepping the limits of judicial authority have taken over the executive and legislative functions,'' the government's proclamation of emergency today said. Musharraf, 64, sacked Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry, five months after a failed attempt to suspend the top judge. The president will address the nation at 11 p.m.

The suspension of the constitution for the first time since Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup came as the Supreme Court was nearing a decision on the legality of his re-election as president while also serving as army chief. The main gates of the Supreme Court in Islamabad were sealed by security forces after a seven-judge panel headed by Chaudhry earlier said any declaration of emergency would be illegal.

``This is primarily a pre-emptive move on President Musharraf's part to curb any attempts by the Supreme Court to deny him his presidential victory,'' Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at Chatham house in London, said in a telephone interview. ``No-one is in any doubt: This is a panic measure and could signal the beginning of the end for General Musharraf.''

The order may strain a tentative power sharing agreement between Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto that spurred the former prime minister to return from eight years in exile last month. Bhutto, who left for Dubai on Nov. 1 after surviving an assassination attempt in Karachi, will return to Pakistan by tomorrow, spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in Islamabad.

Aziz Remains

Musharraf didn't dismiss the government of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and the 342-member parliament, which is due to complete its five-year term on Nov. 15, state-run Pakistan Television reported. National parliamentary elections are supposed to be held by Jan. 15.

``Pakistan's chief of army staff has declared a state of emergency and issued a provisional constitutional order,'' according to a statement read on Pakistan Television.

Musharraf appointed Abdul Hameed Dogar, a Supreme Court judge, as the country's chief justice to replace Chaudhry. Three others judges were also appointed to the Supreme Court.

The president sparked the most serious opposition to his rule in March when he dismissed Chaudhry on charges of misusing authority. Lawyers and opposition parties staged nationwide demonstrations until a 13-member panel of Supreme Court judges reinstated Chaudhry in July.

Court Surrounded

The Pakistan Rangers, the nation's paramilitary force, occupied the buildings of the top court, parliament and PTV. Privately-run television news channels went off air across the country around 5 p.m. today.

``Some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism thereby weakening the government and the nation's resolve and diluting the efficacy of its actions to control this menace,'' the government statement said.

Musharraf is risking the billions of dollars of military and economic aid that Bush pumped into Pakistan in return for his support for the U.S. war on terror. Musharraf was on the brink of suspending parliamentary rule in August before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned to urge him against that course, U.S. officials had said.

`Deeply Disturbed'

The U.S., in a statement released by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, said it was ``deeply disturbed'' by Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency and called it ``a sharp setback for Pakistani democracy'' that ``takes Pakistan off the path toward civilian rule.''

``The Bush administration will take a dim view of any attempt by President Musharraf to impose emergency rule,'' said Shaikh in London. ``It would certainly mean cutbacks in the type of aid Pakistan has enjoyed since 2001. That would bring very grave consequences.''

Musharraf, who has survived at least four assassination attempts by Islamic extremists since 2001, has faced his greatest challenge since he seized power in a military coup in 1999. Religious parties oppose his support for Bush's campaign against terrorism and the country's opposition parties are demanding his resignation.

The general won the mandate for a second five-year term on Oct. 6.

Stocks Slump

Pakistan's stocks slumped the most in two months on Nov. 1 after a suicide bomb attack, the second this week, killed at least eight people and concern mounted that the Supreme Court will rule Musharraf ineligible for a second term.

A suicide bomber on a motorcycle attacked a Pakistan Air Force bus, killing at least eight people and wounding 4 others near the industrial city of Faisalabad.

More than 450 people have been killed in bombings since security forces stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, ending a challenge to the government by clerics seeking to impose Islamic law in the capital.

``This is akin to another martial law,'' Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said in a phone interview. ``If the situation was such that emergency was necessary to save the country, then Musharraf is responsible and should have resigned.''

Former Prime Minister Bhutto said on Oct. 31 she had heard ``rumors'' Musharraf planned to impose a state of emergency, GEO television reported. Musharraf must respect the court's decision, she said.

``Pakistan Peoples' Party strongly condemns this decision and we will resist it in every way possible,'' Sherry Rehman, Bhutto's spokeswoman said in a phone interview from Karachi.

Twin Attacks

Bhutto, 54, who leads the second-biggest opposition party in Parliament, was the target of twin suicide bombings on Oct. 19 after she returned to Pakistan, ending eight years of self- imposed exile. At least 136 people were killed and over 500 were injured.

As part of the deal allowing her return, Bhutto did not object to Musharraf being re-elected Oct. 6 by the current Parliament and state legislatures, a vote boycotted by the opposition. Bhutto is hoping that the laws will be changed to allow her to run for a third term as prime minister in parliamentary elections.

Musharraf had agreed to give up control of the army by Nov. 15 as part of the deal.

Islamic parties oppose Musharraf's security operations in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan and his backing for the U.S.-led war on terrorism since 2001, when he ended Pakistan's support for the Taliban regime that sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001.

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