As Musharraf Enters Race, Judge Orders Political Foes Released

Lawyers demonstrate against President Pervez Musharraf in Lahore, Pakistan. Islamabad, the capital, was sealed off to prevent other protests.
Lawyers demonstrate against President Pervez Musharraf in Lahore, Pakistan. Islamabad, the capital, was sealed off to prevent other protests. (By K.m. Chaudary -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 28, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 27 -- Pakistan's chief justice ordered the release of hundreds of jailed opposition activists Thursday, while President Pervez Musharraf formally jumped into the race for another term despite a candidacy that remains in legal limbo.

The activists had been rounded up in recent days as part of a government crackdown on political parties that are trying to block the general's quest for another five years as president. Government officials said the arrests were necessary to maintain law and order. But the opposition asserted that Musharraf was attempting to squelch democratic dissent in advance of Oct. 6 elections, which they view as illegitimate.

Government officials said they would comply with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry's order to release the prisoners.

The government has acknowledged detaining 200 activists, including senior opposition leaders. Opposition groups say the number is far higher. This week, the U.S. Embassy issued a rare rebuke of Musharraf's government, terming the arrests "extremely disturbing."

With Islamabad under a lockdown to prevent protests, Musharraf's supporters formally submitted his nomination papers for a new term. Another 42 Pakistanis were also nominated, but only Musharraf is believed to have the necessary votes in the national and provincial assemblies to win. Members of the assemblies were elected in 2002 races that were marred by irregularities, and the bodies are packed with Musharraf backers.

It remains unclear, however, whether Musharraf will be allowed to run. The Supreme Court continued Thursday to hear a challenge to his candidacy from lawyers who argue that his other job, as army chief, automatically disqualifies him. A decision was expected Friday.

Musharraf came to power in a 1999 military coup, appointed himself president in 2001 and staged a discredited referendum in 2002 that extended his rule. He has vowed to retire from the army if he wins a new term as president next month from the assemblies. If he does not win or is disqualified, aides have said he will stay in uniform, and they have hinted strongly that he will declare a state of emergency to try to hang on to power.

Aitzaz Ahsan, an opposition lawyer, told the court Thursday that Musharraf's stance amounts to "blackmail."

"This will not be a proper and honest transition to democracy," Ahsan said.

A coalition of opposition parties said Thursday that members would resign from the assemblies Tuesday to protest Musharraf's plans.

"We see that General Musharraf wants to become president by hook or by crook, and he is now taking extra-constitutional steps for this purpose," said Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of a religious party that will take part in the resignations. "The day is not far when we will overthrow his regime."

The opposition coalition does not include former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, however. She continues to weigh a possible power-sharing deal with the general in advance of her plan to return from exile Oct. 18.

With the opposition badly divided, many who want to see an end to Musharraf's rule have been looking to the Supreme Court as their best hope. But those who have been watching the case against his candidacy say they believe that hope is dwindling.

"My instinct is it's going to go against us," said Imran Khan, leader of the opposition Pakistan Justice Movement. "The establishment is just too powerful here."

Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company