Crackdown on Opposition - Signs of Government Panic

Picture: Gulf News
Pakistan Detains Opposition Leaders as Protests Mount
By Katherine Espina and Farhan Sharif: Bloomberg

Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistani police detained at least four opposition leaders as protests mounted against President Pervez Musharraf's bid for a second five-year term.

``We do not want any hurdles in the election process,'' Junior Information Minister Tariq Azeem said in a telephone interview today. ``Some members of the opposition were detained for the maintenance of public order. They were confined to their own houses,'' he said, without giving names. Azeem said he couldn't say how long they will be detained.

Opponents say Musharraf, who took power in a military coup eight years ago, is barred by the constitution from a second term as president while he remains head of the armed forces. Musharraf's lawyer told a panel of Supreme Court judges last week that he'll give up his army post if he wins the election, which is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Musharraf, 64, is being challenged by Islamic groups upset by his support for the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and by democracy activists outraged by his March decision to remove the Supreme Court's chief justice, who was later reinstated.

The arrests were made after opposition members on Friday stormed the Supreme Court building, where justices were hearing a petition that Musharraf be barred from running.

``They also threatened to storm the election commission offices this week and this has been done to maintain public order,'' Azeem said.

Exiled Ex-Premier

Among those arrested, according to Agence France-Presse, were Javed Hashmi and Raja Zafar ul-Haq, members of exiled former premier Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League; and Hafiz Hussain Ahmad and Mia Aslam, from a coalition of radical Islamic parties.

The four were detained after police raided their homes yesterday, AFP reported, citing a police official who wasn't identified. Security forces arrested dozens more activists in raids on their homes, AFP said.

Asked if more members of the opposition will be detained, Azeem said, ``It's difficult to say. If the need arises.''

Pakistan's president is elected by lawmakers from the nation's parliament as well as regional assemblies. Musharraf's backers say he has the votes needed to win. Parliamentary elections will be held by Jan. 15 after the present parliament ends its term on Nov. 15.

Opposition leaders will resign from parliament on Sept. 29 to protest Musharraf's plan to seek re-election, Raja Zafar-ul- Haq, chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) told reporters in Islamabad on Sept. 21.

Election Commission

The All Parties Democratic Movement, an alliance of opposition groups, has said it will picket the Election Commission on Sept. 27, when presidential nomination papers are filed, and will resign from the national and provincial assemblies two days later.

The alliance includes former Prime Minister Sharif's party, an alliance of religious parties, and former cricket star Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaaf.

Pakistan has excluded the president from a restriction on public servants standing in elections, removing an obstacle to Musharraf seeking a second term. Under the Pakistani law, a government employee cannot run for a political office until two years after his retirement.

Musharraf appointed Major General Nadeem Taj, a reported close associate, as chief of the military's intelligence division ahead of the presidential poll. The military denies the promotion was part of an attempt to put allies in leading positions as Musharraf prepares to give up his army post.

Economic Growth

Musharraf, who ousted then-prime minister Sharif in 1999, has overseen average annual growth of 7.5 percent in Pakistan's $146 billion economy, South Asia's second-biggest, over the past four years. Foreign exchange reserves rose to $16 billion this month, from less than $1 billion eight years ago.

The government estimates a fourth of the nation's 165 million people live on less than a dollar a day. The nation is the world's second largest predominantly Muslim country, after Indonesia.

The benchmark Karachi Stock Exchange has climbed 11-fold on overseas aid and loans since Pakistan withdrew support for Afghanistan's Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

To contact the reporters on this story: Katherine Espina in Singapore at

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