By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 13 -- The Pakistani government early Tuesday placed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto under house arrest for seven days and said her party would be barred from holding a major procession to protest emergency rule.
Bhutto had planned to lead the procession later Tuesday from Lahore to Islamabad, the capital, more than 200 miles to the west by road. But the government said it had intelligence suggesting that a suicide bombing targeting Bhutto had been planned and that her detention, in a party activist's home in Lahore, was for her own safety.
The opposition had vowed Monday to push ahead with plans for the procession, but it was unclear how many demonstrators would turn out, given the government's order and the fact that their leader, Bhutto, would be prevented from participating. Police had erected barricades around the house where she was staying, and snipers were posted on neighborhood rooftops.
About 30 Bhutto supporters who arrived Tuesday outside the home where she was staying were swiftly hustled into police vans while yelling, "Save Pakistan!"
Tariq Azim Khan, a government spokesman, said that even without Bhutto, the procession would not be permitted under the emergency rule that President Pervez Musharraf imposed Nov. 3.
"All rallies, all political gatherings, are outlawed," Khan said. Of Bhutto, he said: "She shouldn't break the law. It's too dangerous."
Security forces were widely deployed in the city, with many streets barricaded and police with AK-47 assault weapons positioned in front of markets, public gardens and other sites.
The opposition leader was the target of a suicide attack in the southern city of Karachi on Oct. 18 during a celebration marking her return from eight years in exile. An estimated 145 people were killed.
During a visit to the tomb of a renowned 19th-century poet in Lahore on Monday, Bhutto said the procession was necessary "to save Pakistan" and worth the risk.
"I know it is dangerous," she told reporters before the government announced that she would be detained. "But I ask myself: What is the alternative, and how can we save our country?
"We appeal to all people, including from other parties and minorities, women and children, to take part in this long march."
Opposition parties threatened Monday to boycott elections planned for Jan. 9 unless emergency rule were lifted. With opposition leaders jailed and independent news media blocked, they said, a free and fair vote was impossible.
"We won't do it. How can we have elections during emergency rule with so many opposition figures in prison?" Liaqat Baloch, secretary general of Pakistan's most popular Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, said in an interview, adding that police had detained several members of his party.
In London, meanwhile, the 53-nation Commonwealth, a grouping made up mostly of former British colonies and dependencies, threatened to suspend Pakistan's membership unless Musharraf repeals the emergency decree, steps down as army chief, releases political detainees, removes media restrictions and acts rapidly to bring about free and fair elections.
Commonwealth foreign ministers warned in a statement that the planned elections "would not be credible unless the state of emergency is removed and constitutional rights of the people, political parties and independence of the judiciary are restored." The ministers agreed to review Pakistan's progress at their next meeting, on Nov. 22, and to "suspend Pakistan from the Councils of the Commonwealth" if the government fails to implement the specified measures, the statement said.
The government's moves Monday were the latest setbacks for the opposition since Musharraf declared emergency rule, fired several Supreme Court justices and suspended the constitution.
A key ally in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Musharraf said the moves were essential if he were to have a freer hand in battling extremism. However, Western diplomats and even his aides have said privately that his main objective was to stop the Supreme Court from ruling his Oct. 6 reelection invalid.
Although he set a date for parliamentary elections, Musharraf declined to say when the emergency would be lifted and the constitution restored. Bhutto has warned that she would hold no talks with Musharraf as long as the constitution was suspended.
"If there's an emergency, if the constitution is not restored, there cannot be talks," she said Monday.
Analysts say that, despite those remarks, Bhutto is still open to a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. Such an agreement had been under negotiation for months before the recent tumult and had the tacit support of the Bush administration. "Bhutto is a master of public relations," a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "She's not going to overthrow her own apple cart."
The diplomat said that unless emergency rule was soon, Musharraf would "risk serious domestic problems."
Pakistan receives much of its foreign aid from the United States -- more than $10 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, when Musharraf pledged to help the Bush administration in counterterrorism efforts.
Bhutto's procession would have taken her along the storied Grand Trunk Road and through Punjabi towns and villages. The rally, which was also intended to pressure Musharraf to step down as army chief, would have been a boost for Bhutto.
"It's sending a message to Musharraf, because this region is the heart of Pakistan," said Omar R. Quraishi, op-ed editor of the News, an English-language paper in Pakistan. "It has a lot of power, if she can do it."
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.