ISLAMABAD (AFP)- Pakistani police fired tear gas and baton-charged lawyers rallying against President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule Monday, as the United States suspended key talks with its regional ally.
Several lawyers were wounded and dozens more arrested as protests erupted outside courtrooms in a number of cities, in the first major show of public anger since Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Saturday.
Military ruler Musharraf’s government meanwhile delivered a further snub to global calls for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, saying that his earlier vow to quit as army chief was now “in limbo”.
The biggest protest was in Lahore, where lawyers with head wounds were bundled into waiting vans after police launched teargas shells at around 1,000 protesters outside the high court, an AFP correspondent said.
One of those arrested was a retired female judge.
In Karachi, police and paramilitary soldiers sealed off the high court and charged at lawyers who were outside the building, witnesses said, while there were also clashes in Rawalpindi, Multan and Peshawar.
“It has never happened in the history of Pakistan that such a huge number of lawyers have been arrested,” said a former Karachi High Court judge, Rashid Razvi, adding that more than 100 lawyers were arrested in the city.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, faces growing condemnation and threats of a break in international aid after he suspended the constitution, sacked the chief justice and imposed tough curbs on the media.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that Musharraf, a key US ally in the battle against Al-Qaeda, must return his country to “law-based, constitutional and democratic rule as soon as possible.”
“We are reviewing all our assistance programmes (to Pakistan), although we are mindful not to do anything that would undermine counter-terrorism efforts,” he said on a visit to Beijing.
A Pentagon spokesman travelling with Gates said the United States had suspended annual defence talks with Pakistan because of the political situation.
Britain also said it was considering its aid to its former colony.
But the calls for democracy appeared to fall on deaf ears, with Pakistan’s Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem casting doubt on Musharraf’s promises to relinquish his dual role as chief of the army.
“President Musharraf gave an undertaking to the Supreme Court that he would take off his uniform before taking the oath but now because of the imposition of emergency, the issue is left in limbo,” Azeem told AFP.
Musharraf said in September that he would quit the army before being sworn in for a second five-year term after winning an October 6 presidential election.
That step was expected by November 15, the end of his current term, but was pending a Supreme Court judgement on the legality of the election. The court case is widely believed to have precipitated the imposition of emergency rule.
General elections scheduled for January are also under threat because of the emergency, with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz saying on Sunday that they could be delayed for up to one year.
The prime minister said said on Sunday that up to 500 people had been arrested in a crackdown after Musharraf declared a state of emergency on the grounds of growing Islamic militancy and hostile judges.
They included Javed Hashmi, the acting chief of the Pakistan Muslim League of exiled prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leading rights activist Asma Jahangir and cricketer turned politician Imran Khan.
Meanwhile the sacked chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, declared the post-emergency situation illegal in an interview published in local daily The News.
“Every thing that is happening today is illegal, unconstitutional and against the orders of the Supreme Court,” said Chaudhry, a thorn in the side of Musharraf since the president botched a bid to sack him in March.