Islamabad: Pakistani police beat and arrested lawyers protesting for a second day on Tuesday against President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule, while officials under US pressure said an election would be held in early 2008.
Opposition politicians, including Benazir Bhutto, have spoken out but there has been no real action on their part so far, and the struggle has been left to the lawyers.
US President George W. Bush, who values General Musharraf as an ally in his battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban, urged Pakistan’s military ruler on Monday to lift the emergency he had imposed on Saturday, hold elections and quit as army chief.
Troops in Islamabad manned razor-wire checkpoints near the presidential palace, parliament and Supreme Court early on Tuesday, while police vetted lawyers trying to enter the High Court in the country’s financial hub, Karachi.
Over a dozen lawyers chanting “Go Musharraf Go” and throwing stones at police were beaten with batons and bundled into trucks in the central city of Multan, a Reuters witness said.
A dozen more were detained in the High Court premises in Lahore, according to a Reuters photographer, but a protest by about 200 lawyers in Islamabad passed off peacefully.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition politicians since Saturday.
The move was seen as an attempt to stop any chance of the Supreme Court invalidating his re-election by parliament as president last month because he stood while still army chief.
After dismissing judges who were too difficult to handle, Musharraf has been filling the Supreme Court benches with more amenable figures. Four more were sworn on Tuesday, taking the total to 9 -- well short of the original strength of 17.
The imposition of emergency rule had raised considerable doubts whether parliamentary elections, expected in January, would go ahead as scheduled.
A stock market that dropped 4.6% on Monday -- its largest daily fall in terms of points -- as emergency rule scared investors, fell early on Tuesday before recovering ground to rise about 1.1 percent by mid-afternoon.
Standard & Poor’s said it had revised its credit ratings outlook on Pakistan from stable to negative.
The ratings agency cited prolonged political uncertainty following emergency rule “and its potential impact on economic growth, fiscal performance, and external vulnerability”.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said on Monday polls would be on schedule, but there was no definitive word from Musharraf.
Attorney-General Malik Abdul Qayyum said the National and provincial assemblies would be dissolved on 15 November, completing their terms, and an election would take place by mid-January.
“Elections will be held, will be held on time and the tenure (of the assemblies) is not being extended for a year,” close Musharraf ally and possible future prime minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, chief minister of Punjab province, told a televised news conference in the eastern city of Lahore.
Musharraf’s cabinet was due to meet on Tuesday, while former prime minister Bhutto -- who the US had hoped would end up sharing power with the president after January’s poll -- was due in Islamabad soon.
Bhutto has denounced the emergency as “mini-martial law”, but she has not mobilised her street power so far.
A spokesman said Bhutto would fly to Islamabad on Tuesday for meetings with other opposition parties on Wednesday to discuss a joint strategy for bringing the emergency to an end.
There was no indication of when Musharraf would lift emergency rule, which he justified by citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy. However he said on Monday he planned to give up his military role in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
“I am determined to execute this third stage of transition fully and I’m determined to remove my uniform once we correct these pillars, the judiciary and the executive and the parliament,” he told foreign diplomats.
Several judges were held incommunicado at their homes after refusing to back emergency rule. Among them was dismissed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who became a symbol of resistance to Musharraf’s rule after defying pressure to quit in March.
“Lawyers should convey my message to the people to rise up and restore the constitution. This is a time for sacrifices. I am under arrest now, but soon I will also join you in your struggle,” Chaudhry told lawyers outside the courts in Islamabad by telephone relayed over a loudspeaker.
Since Pakistan was formed in 1947 by the partition of India after British colonial rule, it has reeled from one crisis to another and spent half its 60 years ruled by generals.
Security has deteriorated since July, when commandos stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque to crush an armed Islamist movement. Since then nearly 800 people have been killed in militant-linked violence, half of them by suicide attacks.
The US has put future aid to Pakistan under review, having provided $10 billion in the past five years, and postponed defence cooperation talks with Pakistan due this week.
(With reporting by Kamran Haider, Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD, Sahar Ahmed, Ovais Subhani in KARACHI) Reuters