Pakistani police clash with protestors
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Hundreds of lawyers in their signature black suits gathered in the stately surroundings of the High Court. “Go Musharraf Go!” they chanted against Pakistan’s military ruler, two days after he suspended the constitution in his bid to cling to power.As the lawyers prepared to march in the eastern city of Lahore on Monday, defying a ban on rallies, riot police fired tear gas and clubbed the protesters with batons. Some fought back, throwing stones and beating officers with tree branches.But other veterans of the bar could scarcely hobble away.”Police also punched and kicked them, despite their age,” said Tariq Javed Warriach, vice chairman of the Lahore Bar Council. “They were treated so brutally. … I’ve never seen such a thing.”Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and is also head of Pakistan’s army, suspended the constitution on Saturday ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on whether his recent re-election as president was legal. He ousted seven independent-minded Supreme Court judges, put a stranglehold on independent media and granted sweeping emergency powers to authorities to crush dissent.The crackdown mainly targeted Musharraf’s most potent critics – the judiciary and lawyers, independent television stations and opposition activists. Opposition groups put the number of arrests at 3,500, although the government reported half that.The U.S. and other nations said they were reviewing aid to Pakistan. President Bush urged Musharraf to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled in January and relinquish his army post as soon as possible.”Our hope is that he will restore democracy as quickly as possible,” Bush said.But there did not appear to be a unified position among senior government officials on whether they would hold the election as planned. The attorney general said the vote would take place as scheduled but then conceded there was a chance of a delay. The prime minister also left open the possibility of a delay.Opposing sidesMusharraf’s leadership is threatened by the Islamic militant movement that has spread from border regions to the capital, the reemergence of political rivals, including former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and an increasingly defiant Supreme Court.Lawyers have been at the forefront of the movement against military rule after Musharraf tried to fire independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry this spring, and they remain a thorn in his side.The Supreme Court has emerged as the chief check on Musharraf, who has been promising democracy ever since he seized power. The judiciary has proved surprisingly independent for a country that has been under military rule for most of the 60 years since it was founded.The emergency decree appeared aimed primarily at heading off any Supreme Court challenge to Musharraf’s prolonging his eight-year rule.The opposition has been demanding Musharraf relinquish his post as army chief and says he should be disqualified because he contested the presidential vote as army chief.Musharraf has also moved quickly to control the media, which he said was partly to blame for the current crisis. Authorities have blacked out TV networks and threatened broadcasters with jail time, but so far have spared the Internet and most newspapers. Most people in Pakistan, where illiteracy is rife, get their news from TV or radio.Police raided and briefly sealed a printing press belonging to Pakistan’s largest media group on Monday. They also tried to storm a press club in Karachi. Broadcasts by independent news networks remained blocked, and domestic transmissions of BBC and CNN went off the air.Demonstrations so far have been limited largely to opposition activists, rights workers and lawyers angered by his attacks on the judiciary. There does not appear to be a groundswell of popular resistance, and all the protests have been quickly and sometimes brutally stamped out.