Hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists were arrested across the country on Monday while protesting against President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to impose what is being called as “Emergency-plus” rule in the country. Many lawyers were hurt in clashes with police personnel.
In a swift turnaround, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz — who announced on Sunday that elections due for January could be delayed by up to one year — said on Monday that polls would be held as scheduled.
“Our thinking about the election is that it will be held according to schedule,” Aziz said at a press conference, but did not specify whether he meant the polls would take place in January. Musharraf, on his part, told foreign diplomats that elections would be held, but gave no date.
While private news channels remained off air, the government moved against the country’s largest media house, the Jang group, by threatening to seal its printing press of in Karachi. As a result of the information vacuum, a number of rumours circulated in the country, with one saying that General Musharraf had handed over power to General Ashraf Kayani, who was tipped to be the incoming Chief of Army Staff. “It’s a joke of the highest order,” Musharraf himself was quoted as saying about the rumour.
Lawyers said that many of their colleagues were arrested without charge. “A lot of us have been taken into custody while protesting for what we believe are our fundamental rights,” said Zahid Ebrahim, a leading lawyer who was picked up from the premises of the Sindh High Court in Karachi along with several others.
Most major politicians, with the notable exception of Benazir Bhutto, who heads the country’s largest political party, were either arrested or not allowed to leave their homes. Bhutto said many people believed that the emergency was aimed at “stopping a court verdict that was coming against him (Musharraf)”. Bhutto was due to hold talks with a close aide of the president later on Monday.
The sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and many of his colleagues are under house arrest. Chaudhry said General Musharraf’s manoeuvre was “illegal, unconstitutional and against the orders of the Supreme Court.”
Another Supreme Court judge, Justice Rana Bhagwan Das, said he was still a judge and those who had taken fresh oath under the Provisional Constitution Order had acted unconstitutionally, in violation of the Supreme Court verdict and their “oaths” had no locus standi. His residence has been locked from the outside.
The right wing Jamaat-e-Islami was also targeted — hundreds of its members had been arrested overnight and Jamaat chief Qazi Hussein Ahmed was also taken into custody.
However, Information Minister Tariq Azim described the claim of hundreds of detentions as an exaggeration. But he did say that it was up to protesters to remain calm, “or deal with the consequences”.
In the meantime, as the political situation deteriorates in Pakistan, the US announced that it had suspended its defence co-operation talks with Pakistan set for this week, and would review its multi-billion dollar aid programme.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to China, said events in Pakistan were “disturbing”, and called for a return to “law-based, constitutional and democratic rule as soon as possible”.
In Ramallah, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “We believe that the best path for Pakistan is to quickly return to a constitutional path and then to hold elections.”
“President Musharraf has said that he will take off his uniform. That would be an important step.”