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Emergency option under study

August 09, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Aug 8: A beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf met his senior aides on Wednesday apparently to consider new moves to tackle an uncertain political situation, including the possibility of imposing emergency that would mean suspension of most fundamental rights, political sources said.

The sources said the situation also figured in informal discussions during a dinner hosted by Pakistan Muslim League president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who was quoted by a federal minister as saying the emergency could be imposed.

Population Welfare Minister Chaudhry Shahbaz Hussain told Dawn the PML president informed his guests that emergency had become a necessity because of the prevailing situation.

Speculation about the possibility of a resort to such a desperate move began after the president cancelled a visit to the Afghan capital Kabul on Thursday to attend a key joint Pakistan-Afghan tribal jirga and did not abate even after some government spokesmen either denied or said they were unaware of such a move.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz will instead go to Kabul to lead the Pakistan delegation at the jirga, which will consider ways to peacefully deal with the raging militancy along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

The speculation was also fuelled by the prospect of an early return home of exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and its impact on the political climate in the country where many parliament members could switch loyalties and cloud Gen Musharraf's desire to get himself elected as president for another term from the present assemblies.

A petition filed on behalf of Mr Sharif seeking an unhindered return from forced exile is due to be taken up by the Supreme Court on Thursday while lawyers of the self-exiled Ms Bhutto were known to be considering to go to court for the removal of any hurdles.

The president has previously been denying any intention to resort to declaring emergency, which can be imposed under the constitution's articles 232 and 233 that deal with political activities, press freedom and other fundamental rights given by articles 15, 16, 17 and 19.

The government came under heavy criticism during a law and order debate by the National Assembly last week, particularly in the light of last month's deadly military operation to clear Islamabad's Lal Masjid and the adjoining Jamia Hafsa madressah of militants seeking to enforce their brand of an Islamic code in the country and a subsequent wave of suicide bombings killing civilians and security personnel.

The law and order situation also figured during a foreign policy debate that was stretched to a fourth day on Wednesday.

Law and Justice Minister Mohammad Wasi Zafar and presidential spokesman Major-General (retired) Rashid Qureshi denied any decision had been taken to impose emergency.

But Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Tariq Azim Khan, appearing on a private television channel, said such a course could be an option which could not be ruled out.

Attorney-General Malik Abdul Qayyum said in a similar interview that emergency, if imposed, would not affect the presidential election, which the government says must be held between Sept 15 and Oct 15, while the present assemblies elected in 2002 run out their five-year terms in mid-November.

Prominent lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan said imposing emergency would amount to undermining parliament and the judiciary.