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Benazir wants emergency lifted, gag laws repealed

November 12, 2007

LAHORE, Nov 11: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairperson Benazir Bhutto has called for withdrawal of emergency, repeal of draconian laws curbing civil liberties and gagging the media and demanded fair, free and transparent elections.

She warned that if the government did not immediately act, the PPP might join other opposition parties to wage a struggle to put the country back on the path of democracy.

“We have received a letter from Nawaz Sharif and our party is studying it carefully,” Ms Bhutto told a late-night news conference on Sunday at the residence of Senator Latif Khosa.

Mr Sharif’s letter is reported to have listed conditions for a joint struggle – in particular he wants Ms Bhutto and her party to sever contacts with President Gen Pervez Musharraf. He sent the letter after the PPP leader met Ishaq Dar in Dubai to propose a joint struggle.

Though Ms Bhutto categorically told the conference that her party had suspended negotiations with Gen Musharraf, she did not say how she had responded to the Mr Sharif’s letter. She also did not say if she planned to work with the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA.

Ms Bhutto said that everyone would have to play his role for ending the military rule.

She said the military also had a critical role to play. “But that role has to be of back-up support to political forces. The military cannot be a substitute of political forces. In the past, it has tried to and the country had to pay a big price,” she said.

The PPP leader listed a charter of demands, including the revival of judiciary, reconstitution of the Election Commission, relinquishing the army post by President Musharraf before Nov 15, release of all political prisoners, limiting the application of the Army Act of 1952 to the trial of militants if the changes could not be withdrawn altogether, and removal of curbs on the media and freedom of expression.

She ruled out any possibility of joining the caretaker government unless all her demands were accepted and ‘issues on the table’ settled.

Ms Bhutto appreciated the announcement made by the president to hold elections before Jan 9, but said it was not enough. “On the one hand, the election schedule has been given, which is a positive step. But at the same time, politicians and lawyers and others are demanding withdrawal of emergency (while) Leader of Opposition in the Senate Raza Rabbani, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, Supreme Court Bar Association president Aitzaz Ahsan and others have been arrested, political rallies tear-gassed, draconian laws enacted, and judiciary and media stifled,” she said.

She said changes made in the Army Act did not distinguish between a militant and an ordinary citizen who would be left at the mercy of the summary courts if arrested under this particular law. “It applies to everyone, which will make it difficult for political parties to conduct election campaigns. The changes in the judiciary and arrest of judges means that we cannot go to courts for relief as we did on the issue of defective and flawed electoral rolls. With the emergency rule and the Army Act there, it is impossible to expect fair, free and transparent elections,” she said when asked if her party would participate in elections held under the state of emergency.

“This is a very conflicting situation. He (President Gen Musharraf) has sent very conflicting messages – taking political and non-political steps together. We shall give people a line of action after consultations within the party,” she said.

Ms Bhutto said that while the US administration supported the demands of pro-democracy forces, it considered Gen Musharraf its ally.

Asked if she accepted Gen Musharraf as president, she said the Supreme Court had cleared him for the presidential election but barred notification of the election result. She said Gen Musharraf could remain president till the election of his successor by the next assembly or a Supreme Court decision on his eligibility.

The PPP leader refuted the assertion that she had negotiated with President Gen Musharraf for a power-sharing deal. “Neither I nor Gen Musharraf ever said so. We negotiated … for a smooth transition to democracy and prevent the mess the country finds itself in today. But he did not implement our demands for reconstitution of the election commission or installation of a neutral caretaker government. Instead, he imposed emergency and derailed the country from the path of democracy, arrested judges and took steps that have led the nation into a mess,” she said.

She said the PPP had never shut its doors for negotiations but these had to be based on some principles. She said every step of the PPP would be for democracy and rights of the people.

She said the PPP would hold a long march on Tuesday and warned the Punjab government against using force to prevent it.

On her arrival, she was welcomed at the airport by hundreds of party activists and supporters who had reached despite stringent security measures taken by the authorities to prevent them from going to the airport.

She was driven from the airport at the head of a caravan to the shrine of Data Ganj Buksh and later to Senator Khosa’s residence.