ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP)- Authorities rounded up opposition leaders Sunday after military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s constitution, replaced the chief justice and blacked out independent TV outlets, saying the country must fight rising Islamic extremism.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup but had given a conditional pledge to step down as military chief and become a civilian president this year, declared a state of emergency Saturday night, dashing recent hopes of a smooth transition to democracy for the nuclear-armed nation.
“Gen. Musharraf’s second coup,” read the headline in the Dawn daily. “It is martial law,” said the Daily Times.
Across Pakistan, police arrested political activists and lawyers at the forefront of a campaign against military rule.
Among those detained were Javed Hashmi, the acting president of the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; Asma Jehangir, chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; and Hamid Gul, former chief of the country’s main intelligence agency and a staunch critic of Musharraf’s support of the U.S.-led war on terror.
“It’s a big blow to the country,” said Gul, as a dozen officers took him away in a police van near the parliament in the capital, Islamabad. Hashmi said the army general would not “not survive the people’s outrage.”
Up to 40 activists were hauled in when police raided the office of the Human Right Commission of Pakistan, including its director, I.A. Rahman, a harsh Musharraf critic, said Mohammed Yousaf, a guard at the office in the eastern city of Lahore.
Musharraf’s leadership is threatened by an Islamic militant movement that has spread from border regions to the capital, the reemergence of political rival and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and an increasingly defiant Supreme Court, which was expected to rule soon on the validity of his recent presidential election win. Hearings scheduled for next week were postponed, with no new date set.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum denied claims by Bhutto and commentators in the domestic media that Musharraf had imposed martial law — direct rule by the army — under the guise of a state of emergency.
“There is no martial law in the country,” Qayyum said, noting that the prime minister and parliament were still in place. “Only a state of emergency has been declared.”
In Islamabad, phone service that was cut Saturday evening appeared to have been restored by Sunday morning. But transmissions by TV news networks other than state-controlled Pakistan TV remained off the air in major cities.
Scores of paramilitary troops blocked access to the Supreme Court and parliament. Otherwise the streets of the capital appeared calm, with little sign of demonstrators.
“Nobody cares about us or about what we think,” said Mohammad Amin, 31, wearing a black prayer cap as he took a break from his work with fellow laborers to sip sweet tea.
Western allies had urged Musharraf not to take authoritarian measures despite recent his country’s recent turmoil.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a return to democracy in Pakistan, as the American embassy urged citizens in the country to remain at home and defer all nonessential travel. But Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the emergency declaration “does not impact our military support of Pakistan” or its efforts in the war on terror.
Bhutto, who had traveled abroad again in the wake of an Oct. 18 suicide attack that narrowly missed her but killed 145 others, immediately flew back to the southern city of Karachi, and declared that the emergency was the “blackest day” in Pakistan’s history.
“I believe the problem is dictatorship, I don’t believe the solution is dictatorship,” she told Sky News television in a report available via satellite.
In his televised address late Saturday, Musharraf, looking somber and composed, said Pakistan was at a “dangerous” juncture, its government threatened by Islamic extremists who are “taking the writ of the government in their own hands, and even worse they are imposing their obsolete ideas on moderates.
The military ruler, wearing a black button-down tunic rather than his army fatigues, also blamed the Supreme Court for punishing state officials and tying the hands of the government by postponing the validation of his recent election win. The court was expected to rule soon on opponents’ claims that Musharraf’s Oct. 6 victory was unconstitutional because he contested the vote while army chief.
Musharraf on Saturday replaced the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had emerged as the main check on the president. His name was deleted from the court’s Web site.
“We have to create harmony among judiciary, legislative and executive … This is how we would tackle the issue of terrorism in a better way,” Musharraf said.
He said there would be no change in the government and its top offices, and parliament — set to dissolve by Nov. 15 — would complete its term. He also vowed to go ahead with parliamentary elections, originally due by January, but gave no time line.
Deputy Minister for Information, Tariq Azeem, said Sunday he hoped the polls would go ahead soon.
“But unfortunately everything has been put on the back burner,” he said. “I’m still hoping the election will happen shortly … but I can’t give you the exact date.”
Musharraf’s emergency order imposed a provisional constitution.
Seven of the 17 Supreme Court judges immediately rejected Musharraf’s emergency order, which suspended the 1973 constitution, and only five agreed to take the oath of office under the provisional constitutional order.
“We will send flowers to those judges who didn’t take oath, and shame on those who did it,” said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the head of the six party coalition, United Action Forum.
Authorities arrested Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer who represented Chaudhry when Musharraf unsuccessfully tried to fire him earlier this year. Another opposition party leader, Imran Khan, was put under house arrest Saturday.
The emergency comes as Musharraf’s security forces struggle to contain pro-Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants who have gained control of large tracts of the volatile northwest, near Afghanistan.
Violence has reached major cities with deadly suicide attacks in Islamabad and Karachi underscoring the failure of Musharraf’s administration to combat the threat despite huge financial support from the United States.
Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and respected analyst, said the emergency declaration was a pre-emptive move in case the court ruled against him, and said the move could “further aggravate terrorism and extremism in the country and slide the country into anarchism.”
Rick Barton, a Pakistan expert at the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies, said Musharraf’s move would likely only postpone his political demise. “He’s obviously not very popular, and it’s not going to increase his popularity.”
Musharraf issued two ordinances toughening media laws, including a ban on live TV broadcasts of “incidents of violence and conflict.” Also, TV operators who “ridicule” the president, armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state can be punished with three years in jail.