Lawyers insist Musharraf can contest Pakistani vote

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ISLAMABAD, Sep 25 (Reuters) Lawyers for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf insisted in the Supreme Court today that he should be allowed to run in an October 6 election despite opposition from parties demanding an end to military rule.

The Supreme Court, ringed by tight security to stop opposition protests, has been hearing challenges to Musharraf's plans to seek another term in office from an electoral college including parliament and provincial assemblies.

Police searching for opposition activists conducted raids late on Monday, a spokesman for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party said, adding that many party organisers had gone underground.

Opposition parties said well over 100 activists were detained in a crackdown that began on the weekend.

An Interior Ministry official said about 100 activists had been held to stop them laying siege to the Election Commission and the Supreme Court. Government officials have said they wanted to stop protests aimed at influencing the court's deliberations.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in rare criticism of Musharraf's government, said yesterday the arrest were troubling. The US embassy called for the release of those detained and urged free and fair elections.

So-called ''preventive detentions'' in the interest of public order are a common government tactic in Pakistan. People are usually only held briefly.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, asked about the US criticism said: ''Pakistan knows best''.

''NO GOING BACK'' The court is hearing three petitions challenging Musharraf's right to retain the posts of president and army chief, the legality of being elected in uniform, and whether he should be allowed to get a mandate from outgoing assemblies.

The court, which yesterday dismissed three other petitions on technical grounds, is expected to deliver a ruling this week.

Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum told the Supreme Court Musharraf had the right to contest the election and the challenges had no merit.

''They want to disrupt the election, they don't want this election to go ahead,'' Qayyum said.

Musharraf, whose main source of power is his military post, has said he will quit the army, but after seeking another term.

Pakistani shares edged down on Tuesday as investors awaited the court ruling. Investors are hoping for a decision clearing the way for Musharraf's re-election, dealers said.

An opposition alliance led by Sharif's party has said it would resign from assemblies should Musharraf's nomination be accepted.

''Our decision is final. There's no going back,'' said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, president of an opposition bloc of religious parties.

However, the opposition said its upper house Senators would vote for Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former Supreme Court judge who resigned in 2000 after refusing to swear allegiance to Musharraf.

Ahmed said on Monday he would run in the presidential election at the request of anti-government lawyers.

The opposition's resignation threat will lack real bite unless the Pakistan People's Party, the largest party led by another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, joins in.

Bhutto has been negotiating a power-sharing pact with Musharraf but has been insisting he quit the army before running for re-relection.

Bhutto, who plans to return home from self-exile on Oct.

18, has said her members might also give up their seats if Musharraf did not take steps to restore democracy.

An opposition walk-out would not stop the vote -- Musharraf only needs a majority of votes cast -- but it would rob it of credibility and detract from its legitimacy.

A general election is due by mid-January and Musharraf's coalition is expected to suffer heavy losses.

REUTERS JK RN1629

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