WaPo : Political Crackdown Continues in Pakistan

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Political Crackdown Continues in Pakistan

Police Raid Homes, Arrest Hundreds of Opposition Party Leaders and Activists

By Griff Witte | Washington Post Foreign Service | November 4, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 4 -- Pakistan's government on Sunday continued a nationwide crackdown on the political opposition, the media and the courts, one day after President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule and suspended the constitution in a bid to save his job.

Police throughout the country raided the homes of opposition party leaders and activists, arresting hundreds. Top lawyers were also taken into custody, and at the offices of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in the eastern city of Lahore, 70 activists were detained. Journalists covering the raid had their equipment confiscated by police, and were ordered off the premises.

The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the move as "an appalling attack on human rights defenders."

Up to 500 opposition activists had been arrested in the last 24 hours, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Sunday.

Aziz said the extraordinary measures would remain in place "as long as it is necessary." Aziz said parliamentary elections could be postponed up to a year, but no decision has been made regarding a delay.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that the United States would review its $150 million a month assistance program to Pakistan in response to Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule.

Asma Jahangir, a leading human rights attorney, reported in an e-mail that she had been ordered to stay confined to her home for 90 days. She called it ironic that that Musharraf "had to clamp down on the press and the judiciary to curb terrorism. Those he has arrested are progressive, secular minded people while the terrorists are offered negotiations and ceasefires."

Opposition groups did not mass any large protests on Sunday, but they vowed to do so later in the week.

"Lawyers and civil society will challenge the government," Jahangir wrote, "and the scene is likely to get uglier."

Independent television stations remained off the air Sunday, and Pakistani journalists said they were unsure when their broadcasts would be restored. One prominent news anchor, Kashif Abbasi, said the government was pressuring the stations to sign a new code of conduct that would impose severe restrictions on what the stations could report. Abbasi said journalists would resist the move. "Do we have a choice? We can't sit there and report, but not talk about the president, the prime minister, the government or its policies," he said.

The only televised news Sunday came from the state-run channel, which ran clips from Musharraf's speech to the nation Saturday night in which he blamed terrorists and activist judges for forcing him to declare emergency rule. State-run TV also broadcast a critical segment on media restrictions in arch-rival India.

While Musharraf cast the emergency-rule decision as necessary to restore order and stop the spread of extremism after a bloody period over the summer and fall, even Musharraf aides conceded that the move was tied directly to a pending Supreme Court case. The case could have disqualified Musharraf from seeking a new term, and the government had become convinced that Musharraf would not win, aides said.

The police presence in the capital, Islamabad, remained heavy Sunday, and an air of tense calm prevailed over much of the city.

At the residence of the former chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, hundreds of security officers kept visitors away. Chaudhry was fired by Musharraf on Saturday, along with at least six others Supreme Court judges.

Out of 17 judges on the bench, five agreed to take an oath to uphold Musharraf's new provisional constitution. The government pressured several others Sunday to sign the oath, or lose their jobs.

Near the Supreme Court, a small group of Pakistanis gathered in hopes of starting a rally against Musharraf. But police ordered the crowd to disperse, citing a ban on public gatherings of more than three people in one place.

"We're in despair and we don't know what to do," said Sofia Shakil, an Islamabad resident. "Just when things looked like they couldn't get any worse . . . "

Later in the afternoon, a group of several dozen protesters shouting "We want democracy now!" attempted to march to Chaudhry's house. But the police blocked their path, and began to make arrests.

"We don't need martial law imposed on us," said Laila Ashraf, a protester. "We need to assert our rights."

Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for an opposition party led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said up to 1,000 activists from his party had been arrested, including top leaders. Iqbal said Musharraf was "guilty of treason" for suspending the constitution.

Responding to Secretary of State Rice's statement on reviewing aid to Pakistan, Sharif called for even more U.S. action.

"Just saying that we will review the aid is not enough. I think the Western countries, especially the United States of America, must condemn this in the strongest terms and must urge Musharraf to reverse all that he's done yesterday," Sharif said in a telephone interview with Sky News.

Sharif is in Saudi Arabia, after being arrested and deported there in September shortly after arriving in Pakistan from exile.