Islamabad, Nov. 3: Pervez Musharraf today staged a coup against himself, suspending as army chief the Constitution that lends him his authority as President.
The general clamped a state of emergency, deployed troops across the country, blacked out independent news media and sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry three days before the Supreme Court was to rule whether to overturn Musharraf’s re-election.
A seven-member apex court bench headed by Chaudhry set aside the proclamation, but Musharraf replaced him within hours by Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar and appointed new Chief Justices to the Sindh, Lahore and Balochistan high courts.
The move prompted former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to cut short a Dubai trip and return to Karachi. She was allowed to go home outside which troops were deployed.
Benazir had returned from exile on October 18 in a deal to contest the planned January national polls, which now look uncertain.
Troops were deployed at TV and radio stations; mobile and fixed phone lines were jammed and many private channels were taken off the air after cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan appeared on screen to condemn Musharraf’s act of “treason”.
Security forces sealed off the boulevard where the presidency building, parliament and Supreme Court are located, and the army surrounded the court building with several judges inside.
Musharraf cited the rising militant violence and “constant” judicial interference to explain his decision that ends weeks of speculation that he might impose emergency or martial law defying US warnings.
A “disappointed” Washington said: “President Musharraf needs to stand by his pledges to have free and fair elections in January and step down as chief of army staff before retaking the presidential oath of office.”
India, after a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, expressed “regret” over Pakistan’s “difficult times” and hoped that normality would return soon. The BJP and the Left denounced the emergency.
“I, General Pervez Musharraf, chief of the army staff, proclaim emergency throughout Pakistan,” said Musharraf’s proclamation, termed a provisional constitutional order (PCO).
“Some members of the judiciary are working at cross-purposes with the executive and the legislature in the fight against terrorism. As the Constitution provides no solution… there is no way out except through emergent and extraordinary measures.”
Musharraf was expected to address the nation around 11pm (11.30pm Indian time) after seeking cabinet approval for the move.
An intelligence official said a list had been prepared of journalists, lawyers and Opposition politicians who would be detained. Eitzaz Ahsan, the apex court bar association chief who represented the petitioners opposing Musharraf’s re-election, has already been arrested.
The proclamation suspends several fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, and allows authorities to detain people without informing them of the charges. But Pakistan TV said the National Assembly, Senate and provincial Assemblies would continue to function.
Traffic on Islamabad’s streets was normal tonight and the shops and malls were crowded as usual, with no feeling of panic in the air. Not many troops were visible except at isolated places.
But many were unhappy. “This was expected, but the military has been creating only trouble for the people,” said retired schoolteacher Farhat Haider.
“Pervez Musharraf should step down immediately,” former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Geo TV from Saudi Arabia, where he was deported in September after attempting to return from exile.
Sharif, deposed by Musharraf in a coup in 1999, urged Pakistanis to rise against the military ruler. “If you don’t do it today, it will be too late,” he said.
A senator from Benazir’s Pakistan People’s Party said it would oppose the emergency. Shots were heard in several neighbourhoods of Karachi, where there is strong support for the PPP.
Musharraf had offered to give up his army post if he was re-elected but later said he would decide on his course of action after the apex court ruling on the vote.
The proclamation today required judges to take fresh oath but Chaudhry refused to do so and directed all colleagues in the country to defy the order. As he was sacked, five other apex court judges took fresh oath along with Justice Dogar, whom the President swore in as acting Chief Justice.
The earlier sacking of Chaudhry in March had marked the beginning of a slide in Musharraf’s popularity and the judge was reinstated in July.