ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Hundreds of opponents of President Pervez Musharraf, including venerable judges, human rights activists and rival politicians, were rounded up Sunday by Pakistani police, signaling the start of what could be a long and concerted crackdown against those who have challenged his authority in past months.
On the first full day of a state of emergency declared by the general late Saturday, Musharraf’s aides raised the possibility that parliamentary elections expected by early 2008, which had been seen as a crucial step toward civilian rule, might be put off for as long as a year.
In a hallmark of Musharraf’s distaste for freewheeling media that for months have documented his every political tribulation, broadcasts by private television channels remained blocked in most Pakistani cities. Domestic reception of international channels such as the BBC and CNN was jammed as well.
The country’s deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who earlier defied Musharraf’s efforts to fire him, was confined to his cordoned-off home in the capital, with no one allowed to approach.
The government began replacing senior judges with Musharraf loyalists willing to swear allegiance to his regime and removed from the Supreme Court docket cases that questioned Musharraf’s eligibility to hold public office while remaining chief of the army.
But despite such authoritarian measures, Pakistanis gave free vent to their feelings – in Internet chat rooms, in blizzards of sardonic text messages, in sharply worded editorials in independent newspapers and in quiet but impassioned talk in bazaars, aboard overcrowded buses and in family-style restaurants.
“I would almost feel sorry for him, but he is still a dangerous man,” said student Najib Khattak, sharing a flatbread-and-kebab lunch with friends who nodded their agreement, though they glanced around to see who might be listening. “The more he tries to repress people, the more they will rise against him.”
Police with batons broke up a small, peaceful demonstration in the capital, not far from the presidential compound. A few dozen protesters, some of them women in flowing traditional dress, cried out “Shame, shame!” to officers.
Shops and markets were open as usual in most cities, and the troop presence in Islamabad was confined largely to sensitive sites such as the Supreme Court building and other government installations. Traffic flowed slowly around police barricades.
Telephone service resumed early Sunday in Islamabad, after having been cut soon after the state of emergency was declared. But many people were wary about what they would say on the phone, given the reach of the Pakistani intelligence services. Almost no one spoke of Musharraf by name, instead using veiled references.
Lawyers, who have been at the forefront of anti-Musharraf protests in recent months, were making plans for a general strike today but acknowledged that mass arrests and intimidation would make it difficult to bring large numbers of supporters into the streets.
Most opposition leaders, even while denouncing Musharraf’s actions, deliberately refrained from urging large-scale protests, saying privately they did not want to trigger bloodshed. But Qazi Hussein Ahmed, leader of an Islamist political alliance, urged followers in the eastern city of Lahore to take to the streets to oust “the military dictator.”
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said about 500 people had been placed in what he described as “preventive detention,” though activists said the number was far higher.
Ahsan Iqbal, an opposition party loyalist who fled his home just before police arrived to arrest him, said he believed the crackdown could continue for weeks.
Musharraf “has a long agenda, a long list,” said Iqbal, a senior member of the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was deported when he tried to return to Pakistan in September. “This is not going to end any time soon.”
The emergency declaration was ostensibly in response to deteriorating security caused by Islamic insurgents, who have been staging suicide attacks in major cities and battling government troops in the rugged region bordering Afghanistan.
But most observers were united in the view that Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, acted to pre-empt a potential legal ruling invalidating his election last month by pro-government lawmakers to another term as president while retaining his position as military chief.
The emergency declaration grants Musharraf, whose popularity and prestige have nose-dived in recent months, extraordinary powers to suppress dissent.
Some of the country’s most distinguished judges and rights activists were among those rounded up and roughly bundled into police vans or confined to homes watched over by paramilitary police.
Those detained included Munir Malik, a senior lawyer who has led pro-democracy protests, and Javed Hashmi, the acting head of Sharif’s party, who was freed from jail on high court orders earlier this year. Under house arrest were cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan and Asma Jehangir, a respected lawyer who chairs the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The rights group’s offices in Lahore were raided Sunday by as many as 200 police officers, witnesses said, and dozens of staffers were arrested. Among those taken into custody was the group’s 77-year-old director, I. A. Rehman.
Musharraf’s aides said no decision had been reached on how long the state of emergency might last.
“We will see what is necessary,” Aziz, the prime minister, told reporters.
Musharraf had promised to step down as head of the army once he was inaugurated to a second presidential term, but almost no one expects that to happen now. Also very much in question is the power-sharing arrangement he had been working on with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Bhutto, who returned to the country from a brief visit to Dubai just as the emergency order was taking effect, stayed largely out of sight Sunday in her residential and office compound in the port city of Karachi, her home base.
Although Musharraf said the declaration of emergency would allow his government to fight Islamic militants more effectively, Sunday saw another embarrassing setback for Pakistan’s military in the tribal borderlands.
More than 200 soldiers and paramilitary troops captured earlier by fighters loyal to a radical cleric were freed, but officials said the government was forced to trade 25 militants, some of whom had been jailed on terrorism charges.
“It is unclear how the new (emergency) measures will make the military perform better in fighting terrorists, who seem to have become stronger while Musharraf spent most of his energy fighting the democratic opposition,” said Husain Haqqani, the director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations.