Guardian : Bloody crackdown as west urges end to emergency rule

Monday, November 05, 2007

Bloody crackdown as west urges end to emergency rule

· Riot police fire teargas, thrash protesters and arrest thousands
· US pledges aid rethink but Rice hints that options are limited

Declan Walsh in Islamabad, Simon Tisdall in London, and Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington | The Guardian | November 6, 2007

Pakistani police launched a sweeping crackdown on opposition to military ruler President Pervez Musharraf yesterday, thrashing protesters and arresting thousands as western powers stepped up pressure for an early end to emergency rule.

The first big street protests since Gen Musharraf assumed wide-ranging powers on Saturday were swiftly crushed. Riot police fired teargas, baton charged crowds and flung bloodied lawyers into prison vans. The interior ministry said at least 1,500 people had been picked up; opposition groups estimated over twice as many arrests.

Britain and the US urged Gen Musharraf to keep his earlier promises to restore the constitution, resign as army chief and hold elections by January.

The foreign secretary, David Miliband, suggested that Islamabad was bowing to intense international pressure to pursue an alternative course. "What's striking is that the international community and the domestic political community agreed on the steps to be taken. There was real unanimity," he said.

In Washington, the Bush administration repeated calls for a return to civilian rule and promised a review of American aid that has totalled $11bn (£5.3bn) since 2001. "The government of the United States is deeply disturbed," said the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino. "We can not support emergency rule."

But the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, hinted that the room for leverage was limited because of Pakistan's strategic importance. "We have a significant counterterrorism effort in Pakistan and so we have to review this whole situation," she told reporters.

In Islamabad there was confusion about the timing of elections. The attorney general, Malik Qayuum, and the president of Gen Musharraf's party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, said they would take place by mid-January as scheduled. But the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, refused to commit to a date, saying only that polls would take place "as early as possible", leaving open the possibility of a delay of up to a year.

Gen Musharraf wields vast power since usurping the constitution on Saturday in a move analysts likened to martial law. Fundamental rights have been suspended, television stations censored and stringent media regulations introduced.

The UN became the latest organisation to condemn the imposition of martial law and call for the release of those detained.

The Pakistan Muslim League-N party of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said 2,300 supporters had been picked up, while Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan's People party put its toll at 173. But the PPP leadership remained untouched, a possible sign that power-sharing talks between Ms Bhutto and Gen Musharraf have not been derailed. Ms Bhutto is due in Islamabad by the end of the week.

The biggest protest was in Lahore where 2,000 protesting lawyers tried to defend themselves against attacking police with stones and tree branches. At least 250 people were bundled into waiting vans usually used for transporting prisoners, some bleeding from the head.

"They were treated so brutally ... I've never seen such a thing," said Tariq Javed Warriach, of the local bar council.

In Islamabad, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the judge Gen Musharraf fired as chief justice on Saturday, remained under house arrest. A Musharraf loyalist has been sworn in to replace him.

Downing Street said Britain was reviewing its aid programme while pressing for the restoration of "normal democratic and constitutional processes".

What can stop the general from using emergency powers?


Emergency rule gives General Pervez Musharraf vast powers. Can anything stop him exercising them?

Lawyer-led protests in the big cities over the coming days could galvanise public opinion against the general, as they did during the chief justice crisis last spring. But this time is different. With TV channels blacked out and independent judges under house arrest, Gen Musharraf looks set to use his extensive powers to crush further unrest. But a violent crackdown will carry a high cost. Pictures of bloodied lawyers and human rights activists behind bars will embarrass his western allies.

Will the US and Britain now take a harder line against Gen Musharraf?

They have considerable leverage. Given his deep unpopularity among ordinary Pakistanis, Gen Musharraf draws his power from two sources - the army and the west. America alone has provided $11bn in financial aid since 2001, and the British government has supplied valuable political cover for his fig-leaf democracy. The US and UK are both now "reviewing" their aid although the US insists it will not cut off counter-terrorism funding. Above all, Washington and London want close cooperation from Pakistan's security agencies in hunting al-Qaida fugitives.

Could Benazir Bhutto challenge the general?

In theory, yes. Apart from a small Islamist party, Ms Bhutto's People's party is Pakistan's only truly national political force. She has made all the right noises since Saturday, slamming Gen Musharraf's move as "mini-martial law". But it is striking that Bhutto activists have largely escaped the harsh crackdown on opposition parties. That is because, unlike her exiled rival Nawaz Sharif, Ms Bhutto has refused to call on her supporters to revolt against Gen Musharraf. Ms Bhutto has other priorities. One is to ensure that corruption charges against her and her husband are not refreshed. The other scenario - backed by the west - is to return to power, possibly as prime minister in a power-sharing deal with the general. Her careful statements indicate that Ms Bhutto still hopes to gain something through talks instead of taking to the streets.

So is Gen Musharraf invincible?

Definitely not. The silent knight in Pakistan's unfolding drama is the army. Gen Musharraf laughed off rumours of a countercoup as a "joke" yesterday. But the fact that the rumours gained such currency may be a sign of unease inside the military. It's no secret that the military is unhappy with the imbroglio in northern Pakistan, where more than 100,000 troops are fighting an expanding war against Islamist insurgents. But opinions are divided about whether Gen Musharraf is personally to blame.

To retain power he relies on the backing of a dozen generals. It's possible that they could move against Gen Musharraf if they feel the army's reputation is in danger, particularly if troops are called on to the streets to quell violence.