Pakistan was thrown into crisis last night after President Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution and declared a state of emergency just days before the Supreme Court was due to rule on the legality of his recent election victory.
After days of speculation and rumour, troops surrounded the Supreme Court building in Islamabad where the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and a number of his colleagues refused to endorse the declaration issued by the President. They were then told their services "were no longer required" and a new Chief Justice was appointed. Meanwhile, telephone lines and mobile networks were shut down in the capital, as were private television channels. The opposition leader Imran Khan was placed under house arrest hours after the imposition of martial rule. He was one of a number of opposition figures and lawyers detained.
Adding to the drama, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was last night back in Pakistan from Dubai, where she had flown just days before. "We condemn this martial law. We will protest it," Ms Bhutto said. However, there were claims last night that Ms Bhutto – who made a dramatic return to Pakistan from eight years of exile last month – had known in advance of General Musharraf's plans.
The Pakistani leader said in his emergency order that he was acting to help protect the country against terrorism. In a televised address, General Musharraf said the country was at a "dangerous juncture and Islamic extremists had challenged the government's authority". He also criticised the Supreme Court, saying it had "punished government officers, including police, leaving the government semi-paralysed". He said he hoped democracy would be restored following parliamentary elections due in January.
The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said last night: "I am gravely concerned by the measures adopted by the Pakistan government."
Most observers saw the move as nothing other than a blatant move by the general to cement his leadership amid a growing belief that the Supreme Court was going to invalidate his recent election victory.
Aitzaz Ahsan, one of Pakistan's most senior lawyers, said he had been detained after General Musharraf invoked emergency powers. "One man has taken the entire nation hostage... Time has come for General Musharraf to go, " he said.
The move by General Musharraf will be of huge embarrassment to the US, which has long backed the military leader politically and financially. This year, when there were previous rumours that General Musharraf was about to invoke emergency powers, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, telephoned urging him not to do so. Britain has also been closely involved in helping to broker a deal between the general and Ms Bhutto, who had planned to try to win a historic third term as Prime Minister in parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in January.
Ms Rice, in Turkey, said yesterday the US believed General Musharraf's move was "highly regrettable". "The US has made clear it does not support extra-constitutional measures because they take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule."
A spokesman for Ms Bhutto – whose return from exile two weeks ago was marked by a bomb attack that killed almost 140 people in Karachi – said last night that she was already back in Pakistan.
"As soon as she heard of the threat of emergency she took the first plane back to Pakistan," said Wajid Shamsul Hasan. "They may arrest her or send her back. We condemn this move to impose a state of emergency. It is an attempt to subvert the path of democracy."
Meanwhile, another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was deported when he tried to return from exile in Pakistan in September, told the Indian news channel CNN-IBN: "We are heading towards a chaotic situation, heading towards anarchy."
Imran Khan, head of the Justice Party, said: "This is a blatant attempt to destroy our judiciary and remove the Chief Justice. They want pliant judges in place and a pliant parliament."
Only a month ago General Musharraf was elected for another five years by an overwhelming majority of members of the national and regional parliaments. But the Supreme Court had said it would consider legal challenges to the constitutionality of the candidacy, which the general's opponents claimed was invalid because he was still serving as head of the military.
Though the court had ruled the vote should go ahead, it said it would examine the issue and decide whether the vote was valid. It was due to rule in a matter of days. General Musharraf apparently decided it was set to rule against him. While he could have chosen to ignore the court's decision – as he did its ruling that Mr Sharif should be allowed to return – it seems he decided a ruling against him would be too damaging.
He has been on a collision course with the Supreme Court since March, when he ousted Mr Chaudhry. The move backfired spectacularly as a campaign to reinstate the sacked Chief Justice drew support. General Musharraf was eventually forced to accept Mr Chaudhry's reinstatement.
The general was due to be sworn in as President on 15 November, after first relinquishing his position as head of the armed forces. Parliamentary elections, in which Ms Bhutto would have challenged for the premiership as head of the Pakistan People's Party, were scheduled for some time in January. Now, having invoked emergency powers, General Musharraf has no need to be sworn in and can also postpone the parliamentary elections if he chooses.
A key issue will be the influence Washington can bring to bear on Pakistan, which has received an estimated $10bn of US aid since the attacks of 11 September 2001. Washington has readily overlooked human rights transgressions while the general was seen to be co-operating with the " war on terror", but has been supportive of Ms Bhutto, whose election would provide at least a veneer of democracy.
Countdown to crisis
March 2007 General Pervez Musharraf wants to be re-elected as president. But first he wants rid of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, he is suspended, but protests follow.
July Musharraf forced to reinstate Chief Justice to the Supreme Court.
September Supreme Court rules that ex-PM Nawaz Sharif – whom Musharraf deposed in 1999 – can return from exile, maybe to stand for election. Arrested at airport on arrival, he is sent back to Saudi Arabia.
6 October Musharraf "wins" election, but the court says he cannot be declared the winner until it has decided if it was legal for him to stand.
18 October Ex-PM Benazir Bhutto flies in from exile. Rumours of a power-sharing deal. Bombs kill over 130.
3 November Court said to be about to rule Musharraf's re-election illegal. He declares emergency rule. Judges confined to court.
Further reading: 'Military Inc', by Ayesha Siddiqua (Pluto, £19.99)
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