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Arrests mount in Pakistan turmoil

Musharraf rounds up lawyers and other foes amid global outcry over his emergency rule.

November 06, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Police wielded clubs and fired tear gas as they battled protesting lawyers in Pakistan's major cities Monday, and the number of opposition politicians, attorneys and human rights activists arrested in a nationwide sweep climbed into the thousands.

The most serious clash took place in the eastern city of Lahore, where about 2,000 lawyers, dressed in trademark black suits and starched white shirts, gathered at the provincial Supreme Court and were preparing to march through the city to protest the crackdown unleashed Saturday by Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf.

Police lashed out with batons and sprayed the crowd with tear gas; some of the lawyers responded by hurling stones. At least 200 protesters, some of them bleeding from blows, were hustled into police vans and taken away.

"I would have gladly gone to jail for our cause," said Mohammed Iqbal, a barrister in his late 60s who suffered cuts and bruises in the melee. His two sons managed to extract him from the crowd and sought out a doctor friend to stitch up his head wound.

In imposing emergency rule, Musharraf cited the country's deteriorating security situation amid a rising Islamic insurgency. But by Monday, he was shifting blame to the judiciary. In a statement issued by his office, he charged that courts had "paralyzed various organs of the state and created impediments in the fight against terrorism."

Derailing challenges

Opponents say the Pakistani leader's actions have left little doubt that his real aim is to quash dissent and derail legal challenges to his rule. The methodical targeting of lawyers and judges, they say, appears to be a response to months of court cases that questioned Musharraf's fitness to lead, and of massive lawyer-led street protests in spring that grew into a nationwide democracy movement.

In Islamabad, the capital, the area surrounding the Supreme Court was sealed off to prevent lawyers and other protesters from gathering there, and police gave chase to the few who managed to slip through the cordon.

Barbed-wire barricades and sandbagged bunkers guarded the court complex, and hundreds of paramilitary troops were deployed around federal buildings, giving the carefully manicured government district the look of a war zone.

Police and protesting lawyers also clashed in Karachi, the country's largest city, and Peshawar, the capital of the restive North-West Frontier Province.

Musharraf met in Islamabad with Western diplomats, who sharply criticized his actions.

Since declaring a state of emergency Saturday, Musharraf has suspended the constitution, cut off broadcasts by private television channels and ordered the roundup of political foes. He also dismissed the country's chief justice and began replacing senior jurists with handpicked loyalists -- moves that caused consternation among lawyers, who saw them as the death knell of an independent judiciary.

The fired chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, remained confined Monday to his residence, which was surrounded by paramilitary troops. Jurists across the country reported heavy pressure to declare allegiance to the government if they wanted to keep their jobs. Those who refused, like Chaudhry, were already being replaced.

Chaudhry, in a statement issued through his lawyer, described the emergency declaration as a "naked attack on the rule of law."

At the same time, hundreds of other Musharraf opponents -- opposition party workers, human rights activists, lawyers and judges -- were rounded up throughout the country. The official count of detainees was 1,800, but activists said the real number was two or three times that.

The arrests included nearly 200 members of the party of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who returned from exile last month; up to 700 members of the main Islamist political bloc; and more than 2,000 belonging to the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the parties said.

In an interview with CNN, Bhutto spoke out against the state of emergency and the "thrashing" of lawyers. "The attention of our country has been diverted from the real problem, which is the fight against terrorism," she said.

Despite concern that she might be arrested, Bhutto said she planned to participate in a protest by opposition groups in Islamabad on Friday.

As the crackdown intensified, the signals of independent Pakistani television channels, along with international channels such as CNN and the BBC, remained jammed. Editors at Pakistani newspapers, which have robustly protested the emergency-rule declaration, said they feared they would be hit by restrictions as well.

Elections in question

Musharraf, speaking to dozens of foreign diplomats at the presidential compound, insisted that he still supported a transition to democracy and that parliamentary elections would be held -- but did not say when.

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