Musharraf faces growing criticism

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani opposition parties will discuss on Wednesday how to overturn emergency rule, hoping to capitalize on international disapproval over the detention of growing numbers of lawyers and political opponents.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, in her strongest comments since President Pervez Musharraf assumed emergency powers on Saturday, said the world must make Pakistan’s military leader revoke his measures or tell him to quit.

“If he doesn’t, then I believe that the international community must choose between the people of Pakistan and him,” Bhutto said in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News.

Bhutto, who arrived in the capital Islamabad on Tuesday, was due to meet leaders of smaller parties on Wednesday -- though several have been detained.

The United States and Britain were joined by the 27-nation European Union in urging Musharraf to release all political detainees, including members of the judiciary, relax media curbs, and seek reconciliation with political opponents.

The EU said Musharraf should stick to a pledge to step down as army chief this month and hold elections in January.

The Commonwealth, a 53-nation group of mainly former British colonies, called a special ministerial meeting in London next week to discus the state of emergency in Pakistan.

Related Coverage


Washington has said it will review aid to Pakistan, which has reached nearly $10 billion since the Sept 11 attacks.

But it has yet to come up with a clear stance for dealing with a nuclear-armed country which is on the frontline in the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has said officials would uphold U.S. laws conditioning military aid to Pakistan and were doing an inventory of aid programs and related laws.

But he said: “I don’t think that anybody expects that the president or the government is going to take a step that might make the United States less safe or might diminish our capabilities to fight terror.”

A White House spokeswoman said Bush had not telephoned Musharraf since he imposed emergency rule and described the general’s act as “a mistake”.

Slideshow ( 11 images )

Critics of Musharraf’s decision to declare emergency rule -- a move which thwarted U.S. hopes of a transition to civilian-led democracy through elections due in January -- say he may have made Pakistan more unstable.

Bhutto said militants had taken control of the lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan -- raising the possibility of the country fragmenting under the control of warlords.

“God alone knows what would happen to our nuclear weapons in such a scenario,” she said.

Slideshow ( 11 images )

While hundreds of opposition activists have been detained, primarily from the party of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Islamist groups, the political parties have yet to order their supporters on to the streets.

Protests so far have been led by a lawyers’ movement, outraged by the dismissal of independent-minded judges, like ousted chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is being held incommunicado at his residence in Islamabad.

Hundreds of lawyers were detained during clashes with police on Monday, but Tuesday’s protests were small and tamer.

Bhutto, who returned from self-imposed exile last month, has condemned the state of emergency as “mini martial law” and pledged to discuss with other political leaders how to overturn Musharraf’s decision to suspend the constitution.

But if she is to mend fences with Sharif, she will have to overcome mistrust about her earlier negotiations with Musharraf.

Bhutto and Musharraf had been seen as working towards a power-sharing deal -- with U.S. encouragement -- before the emergency was declared.

Bhutto says her talks with Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and deposed Sharif, were meant to push him to make good his promises of free and fair elections.

Announcing the emergency and suspension of the constitution last Saturday, Musharraf said he was being hampered by a hostile judiciary and fighting rising militancy.

But ordinary Pakistanis were unconvinced.

“This is not emergency; this is hooliganism,” said Haji Hafeezur Rehman, a merchant from the north.

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; editing by Myra MacDonald