Guardian : 'A nation of hostages held at gunpoint'

Monday, November 05, 2007

'A nation of hostages held at gunpoint'

Declan Walsh in Islamabad | The Guardian | November 6, 2007

Karachi's jittery stock market plunged yesterday on jitters about President Pervez Musharraf's crackdown. But on the tense, troop-lined streets of Islamabad, the price of barbed wire was surely strong.

Spikey barricades curled through the federal capital - past the western embassies, around the state bank, down by the anonymous headquarters of the powerful intelligence agency. Grim-faced, policemen manned the wire bales, swinging their batons. Nervy paramilitaries hunkered behind fresh piles of sandbags.

"Very sorry," said a police superintendent outside, raising a firm hand near the chief justice's house. "No journalists. No questions. Thank you. Goodbye."

For five years Pakistan's ruler has preferred to refer to himself as President Pervez Musharraf. But yesterday it was definitely General Musharraf in charge.

As a harsh crackdown got under way - lawyers bloodied, opponents flung in jail, government spooks hunting those who slipped the dragnet - Gen Musharraf told a reporter he was taking a few hours off for a game of tennis.

Meanwhile inside the deserted supreme court in Islamabad Faqir Hussain had reached his desk. Speaking over his mobile - the landline was dead - Dr Hussain said he was worried. His boss, the former chief justice Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, was under house arrest, he said. So were several other judges who defied Gen Musharraf's emergency declaration on Saturday night.

One, an elderly man with a heart condition, urgently needed some medication, said Dr Hussain. But the men with the guns would not allow him through. "Whoever is doing this is committing one illegality after another," he said quietly. "There is no law in Pakistan any more."

At the Islamabad Bar Association, a gaggle of black-suited lawyers crammed into an overheated hall. The usual slogans flew thick and fast, decrying Musharraf as a dog, a traitor, and - the catchcall of the past eight months - "Go, Musharraf, Go!" But invective that had been casually slung in the past now carried the threat of arrest.

After speeches and cups of milky tea, the lawyers surged through the alleys of a crowded marketplace, shouting and thrusting their fists in the air. They stormed past stalls with typists and cigarette-wallahs and converted garden sheds that double as legal offices. They passed a prisoner on his way to jail, his chains clanking on the broken pavement. The televisions in the market teashops were black. News stations including CNN and the BBC were still off-air. Only the state channel remained, broadcasting repeats of Gen Musharraf's speech, interviews with regime sycophants, and repeats of an "investigation" into the poor state of media freedom in arch-rival India.

An electrifying rumour quivered through the crowd of surging lawyers.The army had revolted! Musharraf had been deposed and put under arrest! A handful of young lawyers spread the word excitedly; older ones knew better than to believe it.

"The nation is in a state of shock - that is why such rumours are rife," sighed MS Moghul, a veteran with grey hair and a neat black tie. "Musharraf is holding our entire nation of 160 million people hostage at the power of the gun."

The police were waiting on the corner, beside an office that dispenses liquor licences to Christians and foreigners. There was scuffling, red faces, shouting and pushing. Eventually the protesters dispersed. An equal size mob of bystanders - traders and office clerks - watched silently from the pavement.

On Saturday Gen Musharraf told Pakistanis he was imposing emergency rule to fight Islamist extremism. But his first targets were liberal, secular people. By nightfall at least 1,500 had been rounded up - politicians and lawyers, economics professors, poets and human rights activists.

Last summer the New Yorker magazine compared veteran campaigner Asma Jahangir to the Burmese prisoner of conscience Aung San Suu Kyi. Now that Ms Jahangir is under house arrest in Lahore, the comparison is doubly apt. Speaking on her daughter's phone - police had confiscated her own - she said she felt guilty. "House arrest is a luxury. My friends are in jail, my colleagues are being beaten, I don't know where some of them are," she said.

Gen Musharraf had become an "eyesore" and an "embarrassment", she said. "It's time for the US to be clear that this gentleman is the obstacle, not the solution, and they simply have to get rid of him."

From the blogs

Whenever I see at the dark screen of TV and whenever I read the cautious yet weeping editorials and columns in newspapers, I feel gloomy at heart. It seems that something has lost at the national level.

The horrendous political situation that Gen Musharraf described in his "emergency" speech is, in fact, true. Extremism and violence has gone out of hand. Society is deeply divided. Religion has been high-jacked and is now routinely used to incite violence ... However, none of this is a justification for a suspension of the constitution and for the declaration of emergency.

I suspected that something was afoot ... and it could be possible that the supreme court judges might revolt. Well now with the martial law in full force I think it's not wrong to believe that the only reason the martial law has been enforce(d) was to curb the judiciary and overthrow them well before they make a full announcement.

Teeth Maestro on