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    South Asia
     Mar 22, 2007
Shaky Musharraf holds only the military card
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - As Pakistan's judiciary crisis deepens and a political storm escalates as daily developments spin the situation into new dimensions, maintenance of public order is uppermost in the minds of those in the corridors of power at military headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Should they leave the maintenance of public order to the civilian administration and the police, who have already failed to control violent protests over the "reference" of Chief Justice Iftikhar

Chaudhary for alleged abuse of power to the Judicial Council, given that further mishandling could easily be exploited by opposition politicians?

Even bigger questions are, what options would be left for President General Pervez Musharraf if military or paramilitary forces are used to confront the mobs, and where would this leave the army? Musharraf, who is also chief of army staff, will seek re-election in presidential polls this year.

While these questions are being pondered, the Judicial Council hearing on the Chaudhary reference has been deferred from March 21 to April 3, giving the authorities some breathing space.

Despite the deferment, the pace of developments is so rapid that anything could happen in the interim. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, president of the six-party opposition religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, has already announced that protests will continue. On Monday seven judges from Sindh and Punjab quit their posts and on Tuesday two more judges tendered their resignations.

The deferment also provides opposition political parties with an opportunity to mobilize their members to take advantage of the snowballing anti-Musharraf campaign.

Such developments leave plenty of potential for more mob violence, and many expect that the next hearing on April 3 will bring out the protesters in numbers not seen during the previous two hearings.

Nevertheless, Musharraf has dismissed the idea of declaring an emergency or deploying the army, despite the fact that all armed-forces intelligence agencies have reported the failure of the civilian administration and the police to handle the protests. The agencies say that probably the only way to contain the protests would be the deployment in sizable numbers of paramilitary forces such as the Pakistan Rangers.

The crisis is being compounded by other developments. According to latest reports, the Pakistani Taliban have seized control of settled areas such as Tank in North West Frontier Province, and the leader of the Awami National Party, Isfandyar Wali, revealed on television that the Taliban now control Frontier Region (FR) Kohat, just 15 kilometers from the provincial capital, Peshawar. "I am constantly saying that Taliban are very rapidly getting powerful in the North West Frontier Province, but nobody is listening to me," said Wali.

FR Kohat is hardly three hours from the national capital, Islamabad, and such a development will undoubtedly bolster the anti-Musharraf forces. As it is, Islamabad itself is home to many Taliban who have been preparing for Musharraf's ouster.

The police are also coming under increasing fire at a time when any missteps could touch off a wildfire of rioting. After failing to contain the protests in Islamabad and Lahore last Friday, they became embroiled in fresh controversy when they received an instruction to "fix" a senior journalist from a national newspaper. The instruction came at an individual level from an intelligence agency, under pressure from the minister for law, Wasi Zafar, whose elder brother was previously director general of internal security in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Zafar had previously abused a journalist on a Voice of America talk show, and a local TV channel repeatedly broadcast a recording of the program. As soon as the police received the "advice" from the intelligence agency, they entered the offices of the largest media group of the country and ransacked them. Fortunately, the journalist was not present at the time and escaped being "fixed".

Thereupon, the government banned many talk shows that discussed Musharraf's action against the chief justice. In the ensuing media havoc, some TV channels announced the ban and at the same time openly defied it. Musharraf then personally appeared on TV and apologized to the nation and the media for the mishandling of the situation.

Countdown to chaos
This is the first judicial crisis of its kind in Pakistan's history. It began with the chief justice being referred by Musharraf to the Judicial Council, on the advice of Pakistan's Military Intelligence (MI).

MI is responsible for counterinsurgency operations in Balochistan, where Chief Justice Chaudhary comes from. Chaudhary had incurred the military's wrath by ruling in some cases in favor of those who were defined as "insurgents" by the military apparatus. He had also taken up the issue of people who had gone "missing" in the "war on terror".

The military establishment had misgivings about the whole modus operandi of the court. But getting rid of Chaudhary is doing nothing to help their cause. Rana Bhagwandas, the new acting chief justice who will preside over the Judicial Council, is a Hindu. He is well known for his integrity and professionalism, and could prove to be a sharp thorn in Islamabad's flesh.

Weakening the case against Chaudhary, all those named as "victims" in the reference against him have denied that they have any complaint against the chief justice. And retired justice Fakharuddin G Ibrahim, who was named as government counsel, refused to appear on behalf of the government and instead appeared on TV to appeal to the nation to stand against the high-handedness of the government.

The crisis has thus severely eroded the credibility of the Musharraf government, and when the dust settles, both he and the military will find themselves on shaky ground.

Compounding the situation are regional developments. The Taliban are about to launch an offensive in Afghanistan, and a US attack on Iran is not out of the question. These events could propel stronger Iraqi resistance to the US-led occupation there, and set shock waves in motion from Pakistan to Israel. As a major US ally in a region where anti-US forces are calling the shots, any weakening of the Pakistani leadership would have far-reaching ramifications.

It would seem that the military card is the only one Musharraf has left to play. He is truly between the proverbial rock and hard place.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Justice in the dock in Pakistan (Mar 13, '07)


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