Friday, November 09, 2007

Musharraf Arrests Bhutto

Left: Police officers in riot-gears line up outside the residence of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, not in the photo, in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, Nov. 9, 2007. Pakistani police backed by armored vehicles detained opposition leader Benazir Bhutto at her Islamabad residence Friday and reportedly rounded up 5,000 of her supporters to block her mass protest against emergency rule.

Pakistani police placed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto under house arrest Friday, uncoiled barbed wire in front of her Islamabad home and reportedly rounded up 5,000 of her supporters to halt a mass protest against emergency rule scheduled for today.

Benazir Bhutto tried to leave by car but was blocked by police after a scuffle with her supporters who tried to remove a barricade. The former prime minister had planned to address a rally in nearby Rawalpindi, defying a ban on public gatherings. However, speaking by phone from inside her residence, Bhutto said that no arrest papers had been served on her.
"If I'm arrested the People's Party of Pakistan workers will continue to fight for democracy and the rule of law," she told reporters who heard the call via speakerphone. She said that 5,000 members of her Pakistan People's Party had already been detained.
Bhutto, flanked by the top leadership of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP), was prevented by police from leaving Islamabad, supposedly to safeguard her against possible attempts on her life during a planned protest in the capital's twin city Rawalpindi.

Ms. Bhutto and supporters were able to drive up to a barbed-wire barricade but could not proceed further when police parked buses and an armored jeep across the mouth of the street. About 200 Bhutto supporters were arrested near her residence including parliamentarians and PPP party leaders.

"She's not going anywhere today," said an officer.

Across the normally bustling Rawalpindi, where the headquarters of Pakistan's army and Musharraf's residence is located, streets stood empty, shops were closed. The road to Islamabad had been blocked by two tractor trailers and a metal gate. Friday is also a public holiday in Pakistan.

In Rawalpindi, about 200 of her supporters were dispersed by police using tear gas and batons. Dozens were arrested, an AP Television News cameraman reported.

Left: Former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto presides over a meeting of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy at her party office in Islamabad, Nov. 7, 2007.

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto said on Wednesday, November 7, 2007, Pakistani opposition supporters will begin a long march from Lahore on Nov. 13 unless President Pervez Musharraf quits the army.
"If demands are not met by November 9, we'll start a long march from Lahore on November 13 and then we will stage a sit-in in Islamabad," Ms. Bhutto told a news conference.
Afzal Khan, an Islamabad police official, confirmed that Bhutto had been blocked from leaving her house, saying officers were following a government order under which she could not hold the rally.

The Rawalpindi mayor said there was a "credible report" that six or seven suicide bombers were preparing to attack the rally.

Left: Police use tear gas to disperse supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benzair Bhutto during an anti-Musharraf protest in Peshawar, Pakistan Friday, Nov 9, 2007. Pakistani police backed by armored vehicles detained opposition leader Bhutto at her Islamabad residence Friday and reportedly rounded up 5,000 of her supporters to block a mass protest against emergency rule.

The crackdown showed that a week after suspending the constitution and assuming emergency powers, Musharraf was not letting up on his political rivals despite saying Thursday that parliamentary elections would go ahead by mid-February, just a month later than originally planned. His announcement came after intense pressure from the United States, his chief international supporter. President Bush phoned Pakistan's military ruler on Wednesday to urge him to call elections and step down as army chief, but judging by the immediate outcome, it is general Musharraf who has the US number.

Friday's moves will further sour relations with Bhutto and hurt the prospects of the two pro-Western leaders forming a post-election alliance against religious extremism.

"We condemn this government move. It shows that the government is scared of Benazir Bhutto's popularity and it does not want her to be among masses," said Sen. Babar Awan, Bhutto's lawyer.

Bhutto's decision to join in anti-government protests against Musharraf is another blow to the military leader whose popularity has plummeted this year amid growing resentment of military rule and failure by his government to curb increasing violence by Islamic militants.

Critics say that Musharraf — who seized power in a 1999 coup — declared the emergency and ousted independent-minded judges to maintain his own grip on power. The moves came days before the Supreme Court was expected to rule on whether his recent re-election as president was legal.

Musharraf said the declaration of emergency last Saturday was needed to put an end to political instability and to fight Taliban and al-Qu'aida-linked militants.

But most of the thousands of people rounded up countrywide have been moderates — lawyers and activists from secular opposition parties. Police have used batons and tear gas to squash attempts by lawyers to protest. Hundreds of students have also staged demonstrations on university campuses.

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, police used batons and tear gas to disperse about 300 Bhutto supporters as they gathered to depart for Rawalpindi. About 25 were arrested.

"We were peaceful, and this police action was totally without any reason," said Arbab Alimgir, a local leader of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

Outside Bhutto's home in an upscale Islamabad neighborhood on Friday, dozens of police, some in riot gear, had taken up positions, laying barbed wire and erecting steel and concrete barriers. At least 12 Bhutto supporters were arrested, including a woman who showed up with flowers.

Information Minister Tariq Aziz said Bhutto was not formally under house arrest — but would not be allowed to leave home. This, of course, is no more than new speak for yes, she's under arrest. Minister Azis, has been doing his utmost to paint a rosy picture of the political repression in Pakistan by remaining available to the western press corps nevertheless, he faces an uphill battle in trying to hue the beatings and mass arrests as anything other than stark aspects of a brutal dictatorship.

Rawalpindi's police chief Saud Aziz told The Associated Press that "since the government has not given permission for the protest, due to security reasons, we will not allow any one to gather here for the rally."

Police were also on the lookout for potential suicide bombers, who Aziz warned Thursday were preparing a repeat of last month's bombing of Bhutto's jubilant homecoming procession in the southern city of Karachi after eight years of exile. She escaped unharmed, but more than 145 people died in the attack, blamed on Islamic militants.

Recently, Rawalpindi has also been hit by a series of suicide attacks, targeting the military. But Ms Bhutto has shown no fear of terror attacks and has shown a willingness to carry on besides the threat. Bhutto supporters said they would only be further emboldened if their protest was blocked.

"We are going to besiege" Islamabad, said Abida Hussain, a former ambassador to the United States. "We will not go away. Our party activists have been mobilized to move out and take to the streets."

Authorities appeared determined to stop them. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, claimed Friday that 5,000 of its supporters had been arrested in the last three days across the eastern province of Punjab.

"It is a massive crackdown on our party," said Raja Javed Ashraf, a PPP lawmaker.

The government offered no immediate public comment. But the security official said only 1,000 Bhutto supporters had been detained. However, the government of Pakistan has continually, depressed the number of people it has detained and beaten since the imposition of emergency rule.

Musharraf, who had previously pledged to relinquish his military status before being sworn in for a further term, said this week that resistance to his government would not be tolerated.

"All means will be used to control the protests," Musharraf said.

The international community has called upon his government to restore the constitution, hold elections as soon as possible and release all political prisoners.

The Bush administration, which has been pressing Musharraf to return Pakistan to civilian government, said in a statement: "We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people." A pledge, which was rejected by opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and others as insufficient and striking of previous promises by Musharraf that were not honored.

The Germans, British and French have all indicated that they are reviewing aid packages to the Paskitani government that are not earmarked for civilian infrastructure. The Netherlands has already suspended financial aid to Pakistan.

But President Pervez Musharraf, on Thursday shrugged off the objections, saying "the international community should not exert pressure on Pakistan."

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