Musharraf puts Pakistan under emergency rule
President Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule in Pakistan plunged the country into fresh crisis Saturday, clouding the prospects for a return to civilian rule and posing the greatest quandary yet for the United States in its dealings with an essential but problematic ally.
Saturday’s proclamation gives sweeping powers to Musharraf, an army general who seized the presidency in a coup eight years ago but has seen his grip on power falter in recent months.
He wasted little time in wielding his new authority, suspending the constitution, sending troops into the streets and deposing the chief justice, who had been a particular thorn in his side. He jammed private TV channels that have been critical of his rule and cut telephone service in Islamabad, the capital.
In a televised address to the nation late Saturday, Musharraf declared that Pakistan was at a “dangerous” juncture and that Islamic extremists were threatening the authority of the government. But critics denounced the emergency measures as driven more by domestic political woes than threats to national security.
Musharraf has been considered a crucial U.S. partner since his decision, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, to aid the United States in its war against Islamic militants, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But even as the United States pours billions of dollars of military aid into the country, many have questioned the depth of his commitment to fighting the radicals.
The Bush administration expressed deep concern Saturday, but stopped short of personal condemnation of the general, whom it has supported through months of growing unpopularity among his people.
“The U.S. has made clear that it does not support extra-constitutional measures, because those measures would take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Saturday while traveling from Turkey to Israel. “And whatever happens, we will be urging a quick return to the path of constitutional rule and constitutional order. . . . We are urging calm on all the parties.”
She declined to say whether Musharraf had given the United States advance notice of his actions, but said Washington had told him many times that it would oppose such a move. In August, when the general considered imposing a state of emergency, Rice called him at 2 a.m. Pakistan time and dissuaded him.
Still, the Pakistani leader’s action will not mean an automatic suspension of U.S. military aid, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Saturday. “At this point,” Morrell said, “the declaration does not impact our military support for Pakistan.”
Some analysts described the declaration as a last-ditch effort by Musharraf to hang on to power.
“It’s effectively martial law,” said Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official who is now a scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “He wants to eliminate all those who were trying to challenge him.”
The state of emergency throws into doubt elections that had been set to take place by mid-January. In his address, the military ruler said he hoped democracy would be restored after parliamentary elections.
“But, in my eyes, I say with sorrow that some elements are creating hurdles in the way of democracy,” said Musharraf, who was clad in a traditional black tunic rather than the military fatigues he often wears. “I think this chaos is being created for personal interests and to harm Pakistan.”
He even invoked Abraham Lincoln, describing how one of America’s greatest presidents had suspended some liberties to keep order and preserve unity at a time of national crisis.
Many ordinary Pakistanis, unmoved by such rhetoric, responded with somber dismay.
“So he really has done it,” said Javed Rashid, a businessman in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. “I feared for my country before. I fear for it even more now.”
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose return to Pakistan last month has roiled an already turbulent political scene, flew back to Pakistan from a family visit to the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai as the emergency order was taking effect.
Met at the Karachi airport by supporters from her Pakistan People’s Party, she declared it the country’s “blackest day.”
Police escorted her from the airport, and paramilitary troops were deployed outside the compound that houses her office and home. It was not clear whether the troops were for protection or to restrict her movements.
Musharraf’s dramatic move came days before an expected Supreme Court ruling on whether his election last month to a new presidential term was valid. Opponents said the vote should be thrown out because Musharraf, under the constitution, was not eligible to run while serving as chief of the army.
In recent days, Musharraf’s aides had appeared to be laying the groundwork for an emergency declaration, citing intensified attacks by Islamic militants along the border with Afghanistan, together with a spate of suicide bombings in major cities.
Word of the declaration of emergency rule came in a terse announcement on official Pakistani television, though rumors had raced through Islamabad, Karachi and other big cities for hours beforehand.
“The chief of the army staff has proclaimed a state of emergency and issued a provisional constitutional order,” a grim-faced newscaster announced.
Witnesses reported that military vehicles patrolled Islamabad’s main avenues and blocked roads, including Constitution Avenue leading to the Supreme Court building. Several justices, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, were inside the building at the time, and later were taken away in a police convoy.
Pakistan’s political scene has been increasingly tense. When Bhutto returned last month from eight years in exile, she was met with a devastating attack on her homecoming procession that killed more than 140 people.
Bhutto and Musharraf have been in power-sharing talks. But analysts said the emergency declaration would make it difficult for Bhutto, who advocates a return to civilian rule, to cooperate with Musharraf.
Some analysts said the Bush administration had placed too much emphasis on the personal relationship with Musharraf rather than cultivating allies from a broad political spectrum.
“His record is erratic both as a statesman and a strategist -- something the administration realized too late,” said Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution.
He and others said they believed the decision might have been generated by the army’s fear that Musharraf could no longer control events without expanded powers.
Musharraf has previously conducted large-scale roundups of political opponents, and his foes feared that mass arrests were inevitable. “GOING INTO HIDING,” one said in a text message sent moments after emergency rule was declared.
Before going off the air, private GEO television reported that Aitzaz Ahsan, a Musharraf critic and the president of the Supreme Court Bar Assn., had been taken into custody.
A declaration of emergency, which is similar to martial law, gives the government the right to suspend basic civil liberties. Judges were also asked to take a new oath of office, swearing allegiance to the regime.
Opposition parties expressed shock over Musharraf’s move. The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was deported when he tried to return to Pakistan in October, denounced the emergency rule declaration and vowed to resist it.
The Supreme Court immediately issued a ruling, signed by seven judges, saying that the government did not have grounds to declare an emergency. Lawyers and other opponents gathered outside the high court building, apparently trying to provide protection to the justices inside.
Musharraf had pledged to step down as army chief before being inaugurated to a new presidential term. His swearing-in was to take place Nov. 15, provided that the court did not invalidate his election.
The general’s downward spiral began this year, when he tried to remove Chaudhry on misconduct charges. But lawyers and other opponents took to the streets in protests that eventually swelled into a nationwide pro-democracy movement. Chaudhry was reinstated by the high court in July -- a ruling Musharraf accepted at the time.
Human rights groups denounced the declaration. New York-based Human Rights Watch called it a “shameless attempt to prevent Pakistanis from enjoying their basic rights under the law, and a brazen attempt at muzzling the judiciary.”
Times staff writers Paul Richter in Istanbul, Turkey, and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.