U.S. criticizes Pakistani opposition crackdown

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan &

Police intensified a crackdown today that opposition parties say has left hundreds of activists in custody while the Supreme Court dismissed three challenges to the re-election bid of Pakistan's military leader.




The U.S. Embassy called the crackdown "extremely disturbing" and urged the immediate release of several opposition leaders arrested since Saturday night. The government said they were detained to derail possible unrest.




The criticism was unusually sharp, considering Washington has been one of the biggest supporters of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. war on terrorism.




"The reports of arrests of the leadership of several major Pakistani political parties are extremely disturbing and confusing for the friends of Pakistan," an embassy statement said. "We wish to express our serious concern about these developments. These detainees should be released as soon as possible."




The embassy said it did not endorse any candidate or party.




"We hope to see a democratic process that is inclusive and the election of a leader who represents the choice of the Pakistani people through a free, fair, and transparent process," the statement said.




Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim defended the arrests.




"No government can allow mobs to storm the Supreme Court building, intimidating senior judges hearing a very important constitutional case, or to threaten to lay siege to the Election Commission building and tear up nomination papers on the day they are filed," he told The Associated Press.




The nine-judge Supreme Court panel is still weighing seven other petitions arguing that Musharraf's dual role as army chief and president makes him ineligible to seek another five-year term. Musharraf has offered to resign his military role if he wins the Oct. 6 vote.




Musharraf's popularity and power have eroded since his botched effort to fire the Supreme Court's chief justice earlier this year. His administration is also struggling to contain a surge in Islamic militancy.




Police took at least a half-dozen opposition leaders into preventive custody late Saturday in Islamabad, and had detention orders for about 30 others who went into hiding. They followed up with wider raids Sunday night that opposition parties claim netted the arrests of at least 220 of their members.




"The government is bent on picking up every opposition man," said Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. "All fascist tactics are being used and all the state machinery is being exploited for the illegitimate rule of one man."




Officials banned gatherings of more than five people in the capital, and roads leading to the court were blocked with barbed wire today. Police, some on horses, stymied protesters' efforts to congregate, arresting about 30 who gathered a few hundred yards from the court.




"The U.S. government hired a dog in uniform," the fist-pumping protesters shouted, referring to Musharraf's alliance with Washington.




Presiding Judge Rana Bhagwandas dismissed three petitions, one because it was filed too late, another because the attorney who filed it didn't show up, and a third without explanation.




During the hearing, Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum defended Musharraf's plans to run, saying he was an eligible candidate.




The court is expected to rule on the other petitions later this week.




The Supreme Court Bar Association, a lawyers' organization, today named retired Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed as a candidate to challenge Musharraf.




Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the head of a six-party coalition of Islamist parties and one of the petitioners, said its senators would not quit the upper house of Parliament as they earlier threatened.




Instead, they will support Ahmed's nomination because it opens up more possibilities to challenge Musharraf's nomination, he said.




The Oct. 6 vote will be by lawmakers from current national and provincial assemblies elected in 2002 and whose terms are due to expire on Nov. 15. Opposition parties say legislative elections should be held first, so the next parliament can elect the president.




Musharraf has called for moderate political forces to unite to defeat extremism and has held talks on a possible power-sharing deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who has vowed to return home Oct. 18 after eight years of self-imposed exile.




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Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.

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