| A journalist from Geo television network hands roses to Pakistani policemen outside the Karachi Press Club on Wednesday. (AP)
Washington, Nov. 21: President Bush yesterday offered his strongest support of embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying the general “hasn’t crossed the line” and “truly is somebody who believes in democracy”.
Bush spoke nearly three weeks after Musharraf declared emergency rule, sacked members of the supreme court and began a roundup of journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. Musharraf’s government yesterday released about 3,000 political prisoners, although 2,000 remain in custody, according to the interior ministry.
The comments, delivered in an interview with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, contrasted with previous administration statements — including by Bush himself — expressing grave concern over Musharraf’s actions. In his first public comments on the crisis two weeks ago, Bush said his aides bluntly warned Musharraf that his emergency measures “would undermine democracy”.
The shift yesterday appeared part of a broader strategy to ease the crisis in Pakistan. Deputy secretary of state John D. Negroponte carried a terse message to Musharraf during talks last weekend, urging the general to step down as chief of the army. Now, after this strong personal show of support from the President, the Bush administration expects the general to shed his military uniform before the end of the month, an administration official said.
Several outside analysts and a key Democratic lawmaker expressed incredulity over Bush’s comments and called them a sign of how personally invested the President has become in the US relationship with Musharraf.
“What exactly would it take for the President to conclude Musharraf has crossed the line' Suspend the Constitution' Impose emergency law' Beat and jail his political opponents and human rights activists'” asked Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate.
“He’s already done all that. If the President sees Musharraf as a democrat, he must be wearing the same glasses he had on when he looked in Vladimir Putin’s soul.”
Bush was asked in the interview if there is any line Musharraf should not cross. “He hasn’t crossed the line. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that he will cross any lines,” Bush replied, according to an ABC transcript. “...We didn’t necessarily agree with his decision to impose emergency rule, and... hopefully he’ll get ... rid of the rule. Today, I thought, was a pretty good signal, that he released thousands of people from jail.”
Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said that “it’s hard to imagine how the administration will be able to achieve anything in Pakistan if the President is so disconnected from reality”.
“Almost everyone in Pakistan who believes in George Bush’s vision of democracy is in prison today,” Malinowski said. “Calling the man who put them in prison a great democrat will only discredit America among moderate Pakistanis and give Musharraf confidence that he can continue to defy the US because Bush will forgive anything he does.”