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Arrests mount in Pakistan turmoil

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Aides have given conflicting statements on the timetable for elections, with some, including the prime minister, saying the voting could be delayed by a year. Others, including the attorney general, said the scheduled date of mid-January still stood.

Reflecting a wave of international condemnation, the Western diplomats at the meeting used strong language to rebuke Musharraf. The U.S. envoy, Anne W. Patterson, told the general that measures against human rights activists and the media had been “heavy-handed,” according to accounts by those at the meeting.

In a signal of U.S. displeasure, the Bush administration postponed annual defense talks that were to have begun today in Islamabad.

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U.S. officials, who spent most of last week in a fruitless effort to talk Musharraf out of declaring an emergency, found themselves with few other options Monday except to express optimism that the Pakistani leader will reverse himself.

“We made it clear to the president that we would hope he wouldn’t have declared the emergency powers he declared,” President Bush said in his first comments on the crisis. “Now that he’s made that decision, I hope now that he [hurries] back to elections.”

Perhaps more starkly than at any other time in Bush’s presidency, Pakistan’s imposition of military rule has pitted the U.S. president’s war on terrorism against his campaign to promote democracy.

“What we’ve done in Pakistan is emblematic of the president’s strategy generally, which has been in the war on terror, in the short run, to fight against the terrorists,” a senior Bush administration official said. “At the same time . . . true stability over the long term requires democracy and freedom, and letting people have a say in their own future.”

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The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to upstage Bush’s earlier remarks, said Pakistani officials first informed the administration “at the beginning of last week” that they were considering suspending constitutional rule. The Pakistanis expressed concern that an upcoming decision on the legitimacy of Musharraf’s presidency by the Supreme Court could destabilize the country.

The senior official described what followed as an intense dialogue, including a phone call to Musharraf from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a personal visit to him by the U.S. military commander in the region, Adm. William J. Fallon.

The United States has provided nearly $10 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001. Administration officials said they were considering how much aid they could rescind without jeopardizing U.S. security. Bush acknowledged that as long as the United States wants to fight the Al Qaeda terrorist network, it will be hard-pressed to cut off aid completely. The United States wants democracy in Pakistan, he said, but “at the same time, we want to continue working with [Musharraf to] fight these terrorists and extremists.”

Rice resumed her intervention Monday, calling Musharraf from her plane as she returned to the U.S. from the Mideast. They spoke for about 20 minutes, with Rice urging Musharraf to restore constitutional rule and follow through on plans to hold parliamentary elections in January.

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‘Unanimous view’

In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he had spoken to his counterparts in the U.S. and Europe and found “a unanimous view from the international community” that Musharraf should restore democracy and constitutional rule.

Elsewhere, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “strong dismay” over the detentions, and the Dutch government, in the first such step by a major donor, suspended development aid to Pakistan.

Before the crisis erupted, Musharraf’s opponents had repeatedly demanded he step down as army chief -- a position from which he derives most of his authority.

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On Monday, Musharraf’s aides responded to persistent rumors in the capital that rebellious army generals had decided to push him aside as military chief.

“It is all false; there has been no change in leadership,” said the army’s chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.

--

laura.king@latimes.com

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Special correspondents Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad and Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, and Times staff writers Paul Richter in Shannon, Ireland, and Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.


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