Pakistan Cracks Down on Election Protest
By PAUL ALEXANDER | Associated Press Writer | September 29, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - Police used tear gas and batons to disperse lawyers protesting a new - and widely expected - legal victory Saturday for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf re-election bid.
A day after the Supreme Court dismissed several petitions challenging Musharraf's pursuit of a new five-year term, the Election Commission approved his candidacy. Saturday's ruling is expected to be challenged.
Police first tried to disperse the lawyers, then turned on journalists covering the chaotic clashes. Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim was also caught up in the melee, receiving a few punches from protesters before being bundled into a car by aides and driven away.
More legal maneuvers are expected from the opposition - a request for the Supreme Court to review its decision and a planned mass resignation from Parliament for the Oct. 6 vote by federal and provincial lawmakers.
Despite dwindling popularity and increasingly bitter opposition, Musharraf, a close U.S. ally, seems set to win the election. The ruling coalition says it has the numbers it needs, and even the general's main challenger, retired Judge Wajihuddin Ahmed, has admitted he has little chance.
The Election Commission approved only six of the 43 candidates, including Ahmed, who was nominated by lawyers, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, vice chairman of ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. Fahim's party earlier said he would only run if Musharraf were disqualified.
The opposition alliance has said its lawmakers would quit Parliament on Tuesday to protest the general's candidacy, a move also aimed at depriving the election of legitimacy.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has pledged to give up his powerful post as army chief if he wins the election and restore civilian rule in a country that has lurched between unstable elected governments and military regimes during its 60-year history.
But he has faced growing opposition since his failed attempt to oust Pakistan's top judge in March. He is also struggling to contain growing Islamic militancy and growing public sentiment that his alliance with Washington has fanned extremism.
Still, he has been trying to retake the initiative while clamping down on his most vociferous opponents.
Police have arrested hundreds of opposition activists over the last week and sealed off the capital Thursday, when Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and 16 other allies filed the general's nomination papers. The government defended the detentions as necessary to maintain law and order in the face of promised street protests.
The chief justice on Thursday ordered the detainees freed immediately - saying they deserved compensation - and told officials that blockading Islamabad was unacceptable.
On Friday, the Supreme Court dismissed petitions filed by opposition parties and lawyers arguing that Musharraf was ineligible to run because he was still army chief.
Aziz and other officials arrived at the Election Commission Saturday morning to respond to opposition objections to Musharraf's nomination. About 200 lawyers - who had just earlier burned copies of the court ruling - tried to approach from the nearby Supreme Court building.
Chaos ensued on barricaded avenue, with security forces and protesters pelting each other with rocks. Police fired tear gas shells and beat the protesters, with one officer using a tree branch. At least two lawyers suffered bloody head injuries.
Live television coverage also showed police arresting some female supporters from Bhutto's party and shoving them into a waiting van. Three opposition legislators also were dragged away.
Running clashes continued for more than two hours. At least seven journalists were taken to hospitals after being beaten severely by police, with ARY news channel correspondent Asma Sherazi saying they were deliberately targeted. An AP reporter was beaten on the back with a baton and punched in the mouth.
Lawyers also rallied in Lahore and Karachi, where police arrested some and beat others.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.