By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 23, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 22 -- With President Pervez Musharraf facing an election in just two weeks, police on Saturday night arrested key opposition leaders who had vowed to try to block the general's plans for winning a new term.
Opposition party spokesmen said more than 20 leaders were rounded up at their homes and served with 30-day detention orders or were being sought for arrest.
Several are members of Parliament, the body that will vote along with the provincial assemblies Oct. 6 in a hotly contested attempt by Musharraf to extend his tenure for another five years.
"This just shows that Musharraf has gone berserk," said Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. "He wants to arrest all the opposition leaders and then get himself elected. But what kind of election is that?"
Iqbal said that he was also being sought by police but that he and others had gone into hiding.
The government had no immediate comment on the detentions.
Musharraf, who has ruled Pakistan since a military-led coup in 1999, has vowed to win a new term in a vote from assemblies that are about to expire. He has also said he will stand for election in uniform but will resign the post of army chief if he wins.
Opposition groups are challenging those plans in the Supreme Court, saying Musharraf's election would be unconstitutional.
The politicians arrested Saturday night all appeared to be members of Sharif's center-right party or a coalition of conservative religious parties. Both groups have vowed to quit the Parliament next week in protest of Musharraf's election plans. They have also vowed to wage a campaign in the streets to try to stop him.
Javed Hashmi, acting president of Sharif's party, said he was asleep in his room at the Parliament Lodges -- where legislators stay while in Islamabad -- when police came to his door at 10:30 p.m. and served him with detention papers. They did not specify the charges, Hashmi said.
Five officers armed with rifles stood guard outside Hashmi's apartment late Saturday. Hashmi said that he expected to be transferred to jail but that police had not told him when that would happen. He was told, however, that he was not allowed to leave.
"It's a crackdown," Hashmi said. "It shows they are not confident. They know it won't be smooth sailing."
Hashmi was released from jail last month, on orders from the Supreme Court, after serving four years for publicizing a letter he said was written by dissident military officers critical of Musharraf.
Hashmi said police raided the homes of other top leaders in his party, including his daughter, who is also a member of Parliament.
Musharraf's government has often rounded up opposition figures in advance of planned protests. This month, Sharif's party claimed that more than 1,000 of its members were detained in the days before Sharif flew back to Pakistan after seven years of exile.
Sharif was in Pakistan for only four hours before he was deported to Saudi Arabia, despite a Supreme Court order that he had "an inalienable right" to return.
Members of the center-left Pakistan People's Party were apparently not affected by Saturday night's roundup. Although the party opposes Musharraf, its leader, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has been negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with the general.