November 5, 2007

Lawyers Beaten, Arrested At Pakistani Protests

The debacle continues in Pakistan, as police beat and arrested lawyers protesting the emergency rule of Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad today. The Islamist party leader Liaqat Baloch estimates that 500 members have been imprisoned, a fate he narrowly avoided by fleeing Lahore:

Legions of police firing tear gas and swinging batons clashed with lawyers Monday as security forces across Pakistan blockaded courts to quash protests against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency. At least 350 were detained.

In the biggest gathering, about 2,000 lawyers congregated at the High Court in the eastern city of Lahore. As lawyers tried to exit onto a main road to stage a rally in defiance of a police warnings not to violate a ban on demonstrations hundreds of officers stormed inside.

Police swung batons and fired tear gas shells to disperse the lawyers, who responded by throwing stones and beating police with tree branches. The protesters shouted "Go Musharraf Go!"

Despite the obvious preparation Musharraf made in issuing the emergency order, the disorder has prompted some chaos. Musharraf himself became the object of a rumor that he had been deposed in a countercoup. He spoke with Reuters at the presidential building to laugh off the suggestion:

But rumours in several Pakistani cities this morning suggested he had been detained by members of his own staff angry at the clampdown.

Gen Musharraf quickly laughed off the suggestions. "It is a joke of the highest order," he told the Reuters news agency from the Presidency building in Islamabad today.

The West appeared slow to respond on Saturday, but amplified their criticism yesterday. Both the US and the UK announced publicly that aid to Pakistan would come under review, a warning that cash and other aid would shortly stop. Condoleezza Rice demanded a return to democratic processes and elections, but also said that counterterrorism remained a high priority.

The situation has turned ugly, and perhaps the best one can hope to see is the war against the Islamists turn serious in the border provinces. Unfortunately, Musharraf has probably enhanced the Islamists' credibility in his seizure of power and elimination of the independent judiciary. He may have thrown gasoline on a fire already out of his control, gambling that putting the military in firm control of the political process will lead to a stronger fight against the rebels. He might laugh off coup rumors at the moment, but I doubt he'll sleep easily at night for a long time.


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