Rumblings of discontent in the Pakistan army were reported last night after President Pervez Musharraf adopted emergency powers to forestall a Supreme Court judgment that would have declared his rule unlawful.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose attempted sacking seven months ago provoked the series of crises leading to yesterday’s emergency declaration, was marched out of the white marble Supreme Court building in Islamabad and placed under house arrest.
National and provincial assembly elections scheduled for January are unlikely to go ahead after Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem said last night the timetable may be “adjusted”. The decree extended the tenure of national and provincial parliaments due to expire next week.
“Elections will be held but the dates may be adjusted because of emergency rule in the country,” Mr Azeem said.
Declaring emergency rule, General Musharraf cited a need to rein in the judiciary and thwart the drive by al-Qa’ida- and Taliban-linked Islamic suicide bombers to create mayhem across the country.
“The government system, in my view, is in semi-paralysis. All government functionaries are being insulted by the courts, that is why they are unable to take any action,” he said.
“Terrorism and extremism are at their peak. I suspect that Pakistan’s sovereignty is in danger unless timely action is taken. Extremists are roaming around freely in the country, and they are not scared of law-enforcement agencies.
“Inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan, and I cannot allow this country to commit suicide.”
As hundreds of heavily armed troops took up positions in the administrative heart of the Pakistani capital and shooting was reported on the streets of the port city of Karachi, a judge noted for his strong links to the military regime, Hameed Dogar, was sworn in as chief justice.
But in a dramatic series of events that followed General Musharraf’s late-night television declaration suspending the constitution, only five of the 17 judges of the court signed oaths of allegiance to the newly proclaimed Provisional Constitutional Order.
The emergency decree snuffs out the newly found authority of the court, which has been a thorn in the side of the regime since it defeated the attempt to sack Justice Chaudhry, who was joined under house arrest by many other senior figures, including former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan. Mr Khan accused General Musharraf of committing treason, before slipping away from the guards who had encircled his home.
“He was detained along with eight supporters at the house. The supporters are at home but he has slipped away,” a close relative said. “Police are still outside the house.”
The decree banning criticism of General Musharraf spells an end to media freedom that had seen a blossoming of independent television stations, blamed by the regime for many of its ills.
Also banned are mass demonstrations of the type that greeted former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on her return from exile last month.
Ms Bhutto returned to Karachi from Dubai soon after emergency rule was declared. She was forced to stay in her aircraft at the port city’s international airport for four hours before being allowed to travel to her home.
Last night, Ms Bhutto lambasted the declaration, saying her Pakistan People’s Party would work with other democratic parties to oppose it.
“This is not emergency, this is martial law and the people of Pakistan will protest against it,” she said.
Emergency rule means hopes for a power-sharing deal between Ms Bhutto and General Musharraf are now dead in the water.
“Whatever Benazir’s ambitions are – and they are huge – even she could not now be seen to be playing footsy with Musharraf after this,” said a newspaper editor in Karachi.
In a rare criticism of General Musharraf, the US Government last night described the declaration as “regrettable” and said it was opposed to anything that would impede Pakistan’s return to democracy.
But Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he did not anticipate it would upset military co-operation between Islamabad and Washington.
With an eye to the US and Britain, which had headed off an an emergency declaration several times, General Musharraf said Pakistan was on the “verge of destabilisation”.
In an attempt to forestall General Musharraf as he made the declaration, Supreme Court judges issued a late-night order calling on officials to disobey the edict, specifically appealing to army corps commanders.
Senior diplomats in Islamabad reported dismay within sections of the army, with speculation centred on the recently-appointed vice-chief of staff Ashfaq Kiyani, who is believed to favour a return to democracy.
Lieutenant General Kiyani worked closely with Ms Bhutto when she was prime minister and they are said to have maintained good relations.
“Our information is that at the very least there are misgivings in some high-ranking quarters about what Musharraf has done. But whether this will translate into action against him from within the army remains to be seen,” a diplomat said.
“These are tense times. There has been no sign in the past eight years since Musharraf seized power of his support base within the army fracturing. But there are those within the army who are increasingly worried about the way they are being blamed for all the ills of the regime, and how this reflects on the army.”