Pakistan police uses teargas against lawyers

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Islamabad, Nov 5: Pakistan police used teargas and batons against lawyers protesting against President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule today and detentions mounted, prompting Washington to postpone defence cooperation talks.

General Musharraf cited spiralling militancy and hostile judges to justify his action on Nov 3, and imposed reporting curbs on the media in a bid to stop outrage spilling onto the streets amid Pakistan's biggest crisis since he took power in a 1999 coup.

Police baton-charged dozens of lawyers outside the High Court in the economic capital, Karachi, and used teargas against lawyers who ransacked the office of a provisional chief justice who sided with the government in the eastern city of Lahore.

Dozens of lawyers were detained

''We are not scared of these arrests. We will continue our fight, come what may,'' Abdul Hafeez, a Karachi lawyer, told Reuters as police shoved him into a car.

Police were holding several judges incommunicado at their homes after they refused to back emergency rule.

Among them was Iftikhar Chaudhry, who became a symbol of resistance to Musharraf's rule after defying pressure to quit last March and was subsequently reinstated as chief justice by the Supreme Court.

The arrests came after a main Islamist opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami, said authorities detained 600-700 of its supporters in southern and central provinces overnight.

Authorities had already arrested 400-500 political opponents and opposition lawyers as a ''preventive'' measure.

''Pakistan is a country of great strategic importance to the United States and a key partner in the war on terror. However, the actions of the past 72 hours have been disturbing,'' US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to China as the Pentagon postponed defence talks with Pakistan due this week.

Pakistan shares were down around 3 per cent, compounding losses incurred last week as talk of impending emergency rule swirled, while credit default swaps eased and analysts said the uncertainty would put bonds under pressure.

''It is a shock from the market's perspective. Things were going in the right direction and then suddenly you have this complete reversal,'' said Dilip Shahani, a credit analyst with HSBC in Hong Kong. ''Going back to democracy will take time now.

The political landscape is now a lot more uncertain than before.'' Musharraf also suspended the constitution.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced disappointment with Musharraf in terms seldom heard before from US officials more accustomed to praising the Pakistani leader's support in the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

''The United States has never put all of its chips on Musharraf,'' Rice said, urging Pakistan to rejoin the road to democracy and warning that US aid to its ally was under review.

Washington has given Islamabad around 10 billion dollars over the last five years. The US embassy in Islamabad called on the government to free detained lawyers, politicians and rights activists and to let broadcasters resume programming.

SUSPECT MOTIVE Lawyers, journalists, opposition politicians and ordinary Pakistanis said they believed Musharraf's main motive in declaring emergency rule was to pre-empt the Supreme Court invalidating his re-election as president last month.

''Many people in Pakistan believe that it has nothing to do with stopping terrorism, and it has everything to do with stopping a court verdict that was coming against him,'' former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said yesterday.

Before Musharraf proclaimed emergency rule there had been talk that the two could share power after the elections, so long as he quit the army.

The court had been due to reconvene today to determine Musharraf's right to have stood for re-election while still army chief. But most judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, have been sacked. He has been replaced by a Musharraf loyalist.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan's security has deteriorated sharply since July, when commandos stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad to crush a Taliban-style movement.

Since then nearly 800 people have been killed in militant-linked violence, which has included 23 suicide attacks.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said that Pakistan was committed to holding elections, but he could not say when. He noted that under the terms of an emergency, parliament's term, due to expire this month, could be extended for a year.

Nawaz Sharif, the exiled prime minister Musharraf deposed in 1999, said his old foe should quit for the sake of the country.

But Humayun Ansari, a 54-year-old business professor in Karachi, said that might make the situation even worse.

''That would be an invitation for real, real trouble,'' Ansari said.

What Bhutto, who heads the largest opposition party, does next could be crucial. Musharraf allowed her back from eight years of self-imposed exile last month by granting her immunity against prosecution in old corruption cases.

Since its formation out of the partition of India that followed independence from British colonial rule in 1947, Pakistan has reeled from one crisis to another almost every decade, and spent half its 60 years ruled by generals.


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