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Musharraf lifts emergency rule, but restrictions stay

With Pakistani judges still being held and curbs on media intact, critics call the move an empty gesture.

December 16, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday lifted a 6-week-old state of emergency under which he had suspended Pakistan's constitution and cracked down on the opposition, but critics said the move did little to restore basic liberties.

The country's deposed chief justice remains in effect under house arrest, along with many other senior judges. Independent broadcast media are operating under tight restrictions. Most of the thousands of people rounded up and jailed in the early days of the state of emergency are now free, but many fear rearrest.

Musharraf, in a televised speech delivered hours after the emergency was lifted, defended his widely condemned Nov. 3 decree as a necessary defense against an unspecified "conspiracy."

"Against my will and as a last resort, I had to impose the emergency in order to save Pakistan," said the president, who was clad in a formal black tunic and blinked repeatedly as he peered into the camera. "I cannot tell how much pain the nation and I suffered due to this conspiracy."

Human rights groups described Musharraf's rescinding of the emergency decree as an empty gesture.

Amnesty International said the move left Pakistan's constitution "fundamentally flawed" and would allow continuing human rights abuses. New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the reinstatement of fired judges and the lifting of media restrictions.

"Musharraf's so-called return to constitutional rule provides legal cover to laws that muzzle the media and lawyers, and gives the army a license to abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

On the eve of lifting the state of emergency, Musharraf enacted constitutional changes meant to ensure that his actions could not be subject to future legal challenges.

The end of de facto martial law brought little visible change in the capital, Islamabad. Police and paramilitary troops continued to blockade Constitution Avenue, along which most government buildings, including the Supreme Court, are located.

Lawyers, who have been in the forefront of an anti-Musharraf movement that sprang up when he first tried to fire Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in March, pledged to boycott courts presided over by handpicked judges who swore loyalty to the president. Chaudhry, who angered Musharraf with his handling of cases involving challenges to government actions, was fired in the first hours of emergency rule.

Forty-nine other judges, including 13 of 17 Supreme Court justices, were also removed.

The Bush administration considers Musharraf a key ally in the fight against the Taliban and other Islamic insurgents. A State Department spokesman in Washington said the United States welcomed the lifting of the state of emergency.

As Musharraf's chief patron, the United States had pressed for an end to the emergency measures, though less forcefully than other Western governments.

Musharraf's government called the lifting of the emergency decree "historic," saying a years-long transition to civilian rule would be sealed with next month's parliamentary elections.

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, stepped down last month as army chief and was inaugurated as a civilian to a second term as president.

Although opponents have questioned whether next month's balloting would be free and fair, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto welcomed the end of emergency rule, calling it an "important step forward."

"But more needs to be done for the restoration of democracy," said Bhutto, who was campaigning in the southwestern city of Quetta.

The party of the other main opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, was more caustic in its response. A spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, described the lifting of the decree as a "gimmick."

In his speech, the president promised, as he has done repeatedly, that the elections would not be rigged in his party's favor.

"It's my commitment to the entire nation of Pakistan and to its people and to the world that the elections on Jan. 8 . . . will be absolutely fair and transparent," he said.

When Musharraf declared the state of emergency, he cited the threat posed by Islamic militants, which he said was exacerbated by an "obstructive" judiciary.

Critics said, however, that the intervening weeks had made it clear that Musharraf's main objective was to remove Chaudhry and other judges to prevent them from challenging his authority. At the time of the decree, the high court was about to rule on whether Musharraf had been eligible to run for a second presidential term in uniform.

That verdict had been expected to go against the Pakistani leader.

laura.king@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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