Riots in Islamabad Over Musharraf

  • Share
  • Read Later

Less than 24 hours after Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled in favor of President General Pervez Musharraf's eligibility to run for a second term in office, government forces laid siege to the Supreme Court grounds, where several hundred lawyers had taken refuge after a vicious attack on a peaceful protest in the capital, Islamabad.

More than 10,000 riot police and plainclothes officers were stationed around the court and the nearby Electoral Commission offices, where the nomination papers for 43 presidential hopefuls, including Musharraf, were being scrutinized for eligibility. Some 1,000 lawyers and political workers brandishing banners and shouting "Go, Musharraf, go!" were forcibly prevented from entering the Electoral Commission grounds. Within minutes of reaching the gate, baton-wielding police charged the protesters. Yasser Raja, a 33-year-old lawyer from nearby Rawalpindi, was beaten repeatedly on the head; when he attempted to protect himself the police continued to attack, causing extensive damage to his upraised arm. His lawyer's uniform of white shirt and black suit was soaked in blood, but he continued to shout anti-Musharraf slogans. "These things cannot stop us," he said. "We are ready to sacrifice more and more. Our blood will not be taken in vain."

It seemed as if the police were ready to take up the challenge. Someone threw a stone — though it's not clear who — and the police returned the volley with rocks of their own. Some witnesses say they saw police passing around bags of rocks, others say they simply picked them up from nearby piles of rubble. Within minutes the fighting escalated. Security forces fired tear gas shells directly into the crowd, causing a panicked stampede. The police, protected by helmets, body armor and shields, kept up the barrage of stones and gas until they forced the protesters across the street to the grounds of the Supreme Court. Aitzaz Ahsan, a leading Supreme Court lawyer and former Interior Minister, who had served as an advisor to the court on the hearing for Musharraf's candidacy, was directly targeted by the police, as were several other leaders of the protest. Ahsan was hit by a brick in the kidneys at point blank range, then beaten on the head with batons, which shattered his glasses. A colleague, who had thrown him to the ground in an attempt to protect him, was beaten so badly that the force of blows broke his arm. Several hundred protesters were dragged off in waiting police wagons, the rest took refuge in the cool halls of the Supreme Court, where the blood of the wounded pooled on the white marble steps of the main entrance. "There is blood on the steps of Pakistan's Supreme Court," said Ahsan. "The people of Pakistan have a right to protest, yet they have been brutally attacked. This whole situation is as noxious as the tear gas itself."

The crackdown on the protest came just two days after the Supreme Court, lead by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, ruled that the government had no right to blockade streets leading into the capital, nor could it prevent protests or stop the free flow of traffic past government buildings. Nevertheless, both Constitution Avenue, which leads past the Supreme Court building, and intersecting street Sharah-e-Jamhuriyat, which roughly translates as Democracy Avenue, were completely blockaded. "This is a massive violation of not just human rights, but of the Supreme Court ruling," said Anila Ateeq, a high court lawyer, as she dabbed her face with a water-soaked headscarf to ease the sting of the tear gas. "Our cause is the restoration of democracy, that is why we are protesting. The government has no cause, it has no mandate, it only has force."

Ambulances screamed through the gates of the Supreme Court to collect the wounded. Over the course of the day some 45 protesters were rushed to hospitals throughout the capital, the overwhelmed staff of the Supreme Court first aid clinic attended to the rest. The protesters, refreshed by dousings of water, repeatedly rushed out of the Supreme Court gates to shout a few slogans before they were forced back inside by another volley of gas and stones. Each rush, successively diminished by incapacitated colleagues, was met by increasing levels of violence, until police fired four tear gas shells directly onto the Supreme Court grounds. A few lawyers, faces wrapped in water-soaked handkerchiefs, immediately lobbed the still smoking shells back at the police before retreating to the court's entryway. But even the entrance provided no refuge; clouds of gas drifted through the open doors. "We are looking at an obscene and unnecessary show of excessive force," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch, who had come to observe the protests. "This has been wanton brutality against a professional group that is struggling to uphold the rule of law."

The excessive display of violence by government forces just a day after an unmitigated victory for Musharraf was met with incredulity by many observers. "The Day of The General" led the headlines of the local English language newspaper of record, Dawn, this morning, a line that took on a new meaning as the day progressed. "In what should have been his finest moment, General Musharraf has lost his head," said Ahsan, recovering from his wounds in an alcove of the court entranceway. For two weeks the Supreme Court debated the constitutionality of Musharraf's nomination for a second term as President, despite his ongoing tenure as Army Chief. The holding of dual offices is normally prohibited by Pakistan's constitution, but in 2002 Musharraf was able to obtain a one-term waiver. Elections, which are undertaken by an electoral college made up of national and provincial parliaments, are to be held on October 6, just three months before general elections for a new parliament are due. Many hold that the current assembly, which has been in power nearly five years and whose majority is pro-Musharraf, does not have the right to give Musharraf a new term. "Musharraf should have obtained a fresh mandate from the new assembly," said Ahsan. "Obtaining a mandate for another five years by an assembly whose shelf life is over is a fraud on democratic principles and the whole concept of representative governance. The only people General Musharraf has been able to fool and beguile are the governments of the United States and Great Britain."

By mid-afternoon the lawyers trickled slowly away from the Supreme Court grounds, bloodied, exhausted and still coughing from the effects of the tear gas. A few managed to raise a defiant slogan, but most chatted quietly among themselves. "It's just a shade short of Burma," said one bedraggled lawyer, echoing an earlier statement by Ahsan. "Yeah," said his companion. "But here they are attacking lawyers in suits instead of monks in saffron."