Pakistan: House Arrest for Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto, who had threatened to lead a major protest rally in the military garrison town of Rawalpindi to challenge President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule, never made it out of her quiet, tree-lined street in Islamabad. By dawn Friday scores of helmeted riot police, some armed with automatic weapons, had cordoned off the road at each end, blocking it with coils of barbed wired and armored cars. Police were also picketed just outside the gate and wall of her two-story house. Clearly, Musharraf had placed her under de facto house arrest.
 
Later in the morning the police rather politely rolled back the barbed wire to allow several senior Bhutto aides and members of parliament from her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to walk to her house and meet with her. But the same courtesy was not extended to perhaps three dozen party activists and supporters who came individually or in small groups. As they approached the barricade they were quickly arrested and thrown into police vans. Several women, both young and old, one carrying a bouquet of flowers for Bhutto, were among those arrested. Some of those arrested went quietly, others raised a V sign with their fingers, others wailed and shouted, and some unfurled red, black and green PPP flags and shouted, "Long live Benazir!" and "We will not obey the emergency!"
 
Those picked up near Bhutto's house by a host of uniformed and plainclothes cops were a fraction of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Bhutto supporters detained during the day. Bhutto and her aides claimed some 5,000 PPP supporters had been hauled away, mainly in the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Northwest Frontier Province. While that may be an exaggeration, certainly several hundred were trucked off to jail. Among those arrested were some PPP members of parliament and of provincial assemblies. Since he declared his emergency last Saturday, Musharraf had largely left the PPP untouched. His forces had concentrated on rounding up leaders of other opposition parties, judges, lawyers and human rights and civic activists. At least 4,500 non-PPP Pakistanis have been detained. But since Bhutto came out swinging against Musharraf in her press conference two days ago, threatening to send her followers into the streets to protest the suspension of constitutional rights, her party too has become a prime target.
 
With the heavy security clampdown, few PPP activists made it to Rawalpindi, several miles from the capital. Police had locked the park where the rally had been planned to happen. The cops, barbed wire and shipping containers blocked most of the roads leading into the normally bustling city, which had a deserted air. By the end of the day more than 200 protesters had been arrested in Rawalpindi, and another 300 pro-Bhutto stalwarts were detained in Peshawar, some 120 miles to the west. Peshawar was also rocked by a suicide bomber whose attack was probably unrelated to the Bhutto-Musharraf confrontation. He had tried to kill a government minister but was stopped by policemen outside the minister's house. At least four people died, but the minister, who was inside his house, was unhurt. Musharraf had cited such terrorist attacks as the main reason for declaring his emergency. Bhutto has countered that his "dictatorship" is what is fueling extremism.
 
Despite the pervasive security blanket PPP officials told the media gathered outside Bhutto's house that they still intended for the protest march to take place. That didn't happen, leaving Bhutto to meet with her senior aides to map out a new strategy. "She's very calm," said PPP information secretary Sherry Rehman in the early afternoon. "She's going to be coming out to lead the rally." Soon afterward Bhutto made her move in her armored white Land Cruiser. It backed out of the driveway and turned onto the street but was quickly stopped by the police and barbed wire. About two dozen supporters who surrounded her car, including several women, tried to roll back the barbed wire but were stopped by the police. "Do not raise your hands on women," Bhutto shouted at the cops. "You are Muslims. This is un-Islamic."

An hour or so later she made a second attempt, but once again her car was stopped at the barricade. She got out of her car and spoke briefly to the media, standing behind the cops, the barbed wire, an armored car and a police bus. She sounded just as defiant as she had in her press conference two days earlier. "If he restores the constitution, takes off his uniform, gives up the office of chief of army staff and announces an election by Jan. 15, then it's OK," she said. "The government has been paralyzed," she added, meaning that it was spending all its resources trying to suppress the democratic opposition. Her aides say she's still determined to try to take to the streets tomorrow to pressure Musharraf into acceding to her demands. A report from the Associated Press quotes deputy information minister Tariq Azim saying that Bhutto would be free to move out of her house by Saturday, but even if the restraining order against her is lifted, any future protest march will doubtless face the same obstacles.

Bhutto is clearly not impressed by Musharraf's statements on Thursday that he would hold elections by Feb. 15 and resign from the army before he takes the oath of office for a new five-year term, most probably later this month. Indeed, Musharraf's somewhat conciliatory statement does not seem reassuring to many Pakistanis. He has given no date to remove his uniform, and arguably elections could not be free and fair under a continued state of emergency and without an independent judicial system. Musharraf's emergency order swept away the most independent Supreme Court judges, including his nemesis, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. After today's events, an end to Pakistan's political polarization is nowhere in sight.

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