By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 4, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 4 -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution and fired the country's chief justice, extraordinary steps that gave him almost absolute power in a country that he described as spinning out of control.
The government deployed hundreds of army rangers on the streets of Islamabad, arrested some opposition figures and blacked out privately owned television stations across the country.
For Musharraf, who has become deeply unpopular in recent months, the moves represented a drastic gamble and came despite intense appeals from the United States and other Western allies to stay within the bounds of the Pakistani constitution.
In an emergency order, Musharraf cited rising extremism and a judiciary "at cross purposes" with the rest of the government as reasons for the moves. But the timing suggested he was also attempting to extend his rule as both president and army chief. The Supreme Court had been reviewing a challenge to his candidacy for another presidential term, and was expected to rule as early as next week.
The court made a defiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt Saturday to block Musharraf's implementation of emergency rule; in response, seven dissident justices were immediately removed from the bench. Musharraf said the Parliament, where he holds a commanding majority, would remain intact.
Members of Pakistan's fragmented political opposition condemned Musharraf for moves they said effectively put the country under martial law, and they vowed to take to the streets in protest. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a longtime political rival of Musharraf's, immediately flew back to the country from a trip to the United Arab Emirates.
Musharraf appeared on national television just before midnight Saturday and delivered a rambling, 50-minute defense of his decision. He described a government that, faced with terrorist threats and on the verge of destabilization, could no longer function. The country has been beset by a wave of attacks by Islamic extremists in recent months; those attacks have expanded from tribal areas along the Afghan border to regions farther east that have traditionally been relatively peaceful.
"In my view, this was the simplest way to save Pakistan, to put it back on the right track," Musharraf said.
At one point in his speech, Musharraf, 64, began speaking in English, saying he wanted to address the United States and the West. "I would kindly ask you to understand the criticality of the environment inside Pakistan and around Pakistan," he said. "Inaction at the moment is suicide for Pakistan, and I cannot allow this country to commit suicide."
He then quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying that America's 16th president had broken laws, violated the U.S. Constitution and trampled individual liberties to keep the country together during the Civil War.
Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, vowed to continue to move Pakistan toward democracy but did not specify how. He said only that he "hoped" the country could still hold parliamentary elections that had been expected by January.
State-run TV aired interviews in which pro-government analysts criticized political opponents and the independent media for not backing Musharraf at a time of crisis.
Meanwhile, the government instituted tough new media restrictions that made it a crime to defame Musharraf, the army or the government. One private news station that has been particularly critical of Musharraf, Aaj, was raided early Sunday, and police attempted to remove the station's broadcasting equipment.
"He's pretty much carrying out a second coup," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst. "For all practical purposes, it is direct military rule. And he becomes the supreme ruler of Pakistan. There's no constitutional limit on him because he's set aside the constitution."
Rizvi said Musharraf's stated reasons for declaring an emergency were misleading. "It has nothing to do with the insurgency," he said. "It has to do with Musharraf's political survival."
Mushahid Hussain, a close adviser to Musharraf and a top leader in the ruling party, said the steps amounted to "de facto martial law." He said he had repeatedly tried to persuade the president against the measures in recent days but was outvoted in Musharraf's inner circle.
Hussain predicted that the moves would be disastrous for Musharraf and for the country.
"The way forward has to be democratic and constitutional. Any other course is a recipe for disaster. More importantly, it will not be accepted by the people of Pakistan and it will not work," he said.
According to Hussain, Musharraf convened a meeting of his top advisers on Wednesday to discuss options; 20 of 25 were in favor of emergency rule.
Musharraf appointed a new chief justice to replace Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was believed to be under house arrest Saturday night. Journalists were barred from approaching Chaudhry's residence.
This March, Chaudhry was removed from the court by Musharraf, but the court reinstated him in July.
The other dissenting judges were also removed from office Saturday and escorted away in police vehicles about 8:30 p.m. Before they were removed, the group of seven justices had issued a ruling that Musharraf's decision was unconstitutional and had "no ground/reason." The court ordered that the emergency rule should not be instituted.
Four judges signed an oath to abide by Musharraf's new provisional constitution, and were immediately sworn in to a new panel.
"This is a very fateful day for the country. Pakistan is in deep, deep crisis," Aitzaz Ahsan, Chaudhry's attorney, said hours before being arrested. "It is one man against the nation."
Ahsan said Musharraf had declared emergency rule because he expected to lose the upcoming Supreme Court decision on the future of his presidency.
Bhutto, who returned last month from an eight-year exile, condemned Musharraf's moves and said emergency rule made it unlikely there would be fair elections. Her spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said she has not been in recent contact with Musharraf.
Opposition leaders reported late Saturday that squads of police officers were conducting raids and arresting Musharraf critics. Ahsan Iqbal, with an anti-Musharraf group led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said he had managed to slip out a back door when police came to his house to detain him.
"By seconds, I managed to get away," he said. Iqbal said his party would take to the streets to oppose the emergency.
"If the situation in Pakistan has become so grave that you need an emergency, then the person who has been responsible for the past eight years needs to be taken to task," Iqbal said. "General Musharraf is not serious about restoring democracy. He is only perpetuating his own power. He could not afford free and fair elections."
Hundreds of police officers and army rangers set up multiple checkpoints in and around Constitution Avenue, the wide, leafy boulevard where the president's house, the Parliament building and the Supreme Court sit. At one of the checkpoints, dozens of Musharraf's opponents began gathering in an apparently spontaneous display of anger at the emergency declaration, shouting, "Go, Musharraf, go!"
"This is a shame for all of the nation," said Chaudhry Asahgar, a resident of Islamabad. "The whole nation has been destroyed due to this." Several people shouted criticisms of the United States, blaming it for keeping Musharraf in power.
On Friday, U.S. officials had tried to pressure Musharraf to avoid declaring emergency rule or martial law. Adm. William J. Fallon, chief of the U.S. Central Command, met with Musharraf and tried to encourage him to back down from his plan.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Saturday that the United States was "deeply disturbed by reports that Pakistani President Musharraf has taken extra-constitutional actions and has imposed a state of emergency."
Musharraf won a new, five-year term as Pakistan's president in elections last month. But the Supreme Court was still deciding whether he was eligible to run in the first place.
While most analysts had predicted that the court would rule in Musharraf's favor and allow him to begin his new term, the government seemed to be getting nervous as the case dragged on in recent weeks.
With his current term as president set to expire Nov. 15, Musharraf had vowed to step down from his military post before he was sworn in for a new term. But he has broken promises to take off his uniform before and was considered reluctant to do so now. Government officials had been vague lately about Musharraf's plans, refusing to rule out the possibility of an emergency.
Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad and staff writers Robin Wright in Washington and Karen DeYoung, traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, contributed to this report.