Pakistani military strongman General Pervez Musharraf, a key ally of the Bush administration in its purported “war on terror,” has again bared his fangs. On Saturday evening—as security forces fanned out across Islamabad to occupy the parliament and supreme court buildings, force private television stations off the air, and take oppositionists into “preventive detention”—Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in October 1999, declared a state of emergency.
In what is tantamount to a second coup, Musharraf has indefinitely suspended the constitution and the rights to free speech, free assembly, free association, and free movement; abrogated the courts’ constitutional authority to issue orders against himself as president, against the prime minister, or against anyone acting in their name; imposed rigorous press censorship; and introduced harsh penalties for the “crime” of “ridiculing” the president, the armed forces or any other executive, legislative or judicial organ.
Security forces have arrested and are holding indefinitely and without charge hundreds, possibly thousands, of opposition politicians and lawyers who helped spearhead the recent popular agitation against military rule. Those detained include Javed Hashmi, the acting head of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and Aitzaz Ahsan, the head of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and a prominent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) supporter.
All non-state television stations and some international radio services, including BBC World, remained off the air Sunday. Police and paramilitary forces are manning checkpoints in the capital and, according to press reports, have moved quickly to break up any protests
Musharraf has stripped the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, of his post. Chaudhry and six other Supreme Court justices who refused to endorse the General’s emergency order—the so-called Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO)—are said to have been placed under house arrest. A Musharraf toady, Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, has been sworn in as Chaudhry’s replacement. The provincial high courts have also been purged, with many justices either refusing, or not even being asked, to pledge to uphold Musharraf’s PCO.
All these measures carry with them the threat that the military will resort to mass violence should the Pakistani people resist. But the breadth of Musharraf’s power grab and his readiness to militarize the country is exemplified by his decision to proclaim a Provisional Constitutional Order and do so in his capacity as Chief of Pakistan’s Armed Services, rather than use his authority as president to invoke the emergency powers in the country’s 1973 constitution.
“This is the imposition of real military rule,” observed Hasan Askari Rizvi, an expert on Pakistani military affairs. “Because there is no Constitution and Pakistan is being run under a provisional constitutional order issued by Musharraf as the army chief, not as the president of Pakistan.”
The Bush administration, Britain’s Labour government and the other western powers have responded to Musharraf’s coup with the mildest, perfunctory criticism.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who like her boss, George W. Bush, has repeatedly lauded Musharraf and his supposed commitment to democracy, described the declaration of a state of emergency as “highly regrettable,” while reaffirming that Washington will continue to cooperate closely with Pakistan’s military regime. Rice called on “all parties to act with restraint in what is obviously a very difficult situation.”
Speaking from a plane while en route to Israel, Rice said that the US had been counseling Musharraf not to take this step and wanted “a prompt return to the constitutional course”. But she quickly qualified even this guarded criticism by adding that Musharraf had done “a lot” previously to put Pakistan on the “path to democratic rule.”
On Sunday, Rice said that Washington will review its aid to Pakistan. Since September 2001 Washington has given Islamabad at least $10 billion, mostly in military aid. Rice’s statement, however, was not a threat, but an acknowledgement that certain US statutes may compel the Bush administration to cut back its financial support for Pakistan’s military regime.
The Pentagon has been, if anything, even less critical of Musharraf’s coup. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said, “The declaration [of emergency] does not impact on our military support for Pakistan’s efforts in the war on terror.”
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband echoed Rice’s comments. “We are working closely with friends of Pakistan across the international community to encourage all parties to show restraint and to work together for a peaceful and democratic resolution.” Claiming to be “gravely concerned,” Miliband said he would voice Britain’s opposition to Musharraf’s suspension of the constitution by speaking personally with the Pakistani Foreign Secretary, Khurshid Kasuri.
The placid reaction to Musharraf’s coup and its implicit threat of a bloodbath is in stark contrast to the vigorous denunciations that emanated from Washington, London, and other western capitals last month after Burma’s military junta violently suppressed demonstrations against oil price rises and the lack of democracy in that country.
The difference is that the Pakistani regime is a pivotal ally of Washington in the pursuit of its predatory interests in the oil-rich regions of Central Asia and the Middle East. Musharraf has given vital logistical support for the US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and has provided US intelligence agencies with offshore torture facilities. He has also reportedly allowed the US military to use Pakistan to prepare for a war with Iran, by conducting training exercises in Pakistan and staging exploratory cross-border incursions into its western neighbor.