Supreme Court clears final hurdle for Musharraf's presidency
A Pakistani Supreme Court stacked with judges loyal to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf cleared the way for him to rule as a civilian president, deciding Thursday against a final challenge blocking ratification of his election last month.
The decision, which was widely expected after Musharraf purged the court of independent-minded judges, means that Pakistan's Election Commission can put a stamp of approval on the October vote that won Musharraf a five-year-term.
The general has said that once he got a court decision in his favour, he would quickly step down as army chief and take the oath as president.
Pakistani Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum has said such a move could come as early as Saturday.
The court decision "means there is no challenge to his eligibility [to serve as president] and to the election," Qayyum told reporters.
He said the court would issue a directive to election authorities on Friday ordering them to ratify the result.
After that, he said, "the president will be free to take the oath" as a civilian president.
Opposition reaction muted
Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said she had no immediate comment.
An official with a powerful religious coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, said the ruling was "not unexpected," adding that the important thing is for Musharraf to make good on his promise to quit as army chief as soon as possible.
A decision by Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and other opposition groups on whether to participate in parliamentary elections slated for Jan. 8 is seen as a critical test for whether Musharraf can weather the political storm around him.
Analysts say that if they boycott the vote, as they have threatened, it will be difficult for him to claim any legitimacy.
The case before the court on Thursday centred on a claim by a would-be rival candidate, Zahoor Mehdi, who was blocked by the Election Commission from competing in the vote.
He argued the decision was wrong, but the court said his nomination papers were not valid. Five other cases challenging the presidential election were thrown out or withdrawn on Monday.
Pressure to end emergency rule
It is still not clear whether Musharraf will lift the state of emergency, despite international pressure, including from the United States, his key backer.
The Supreme Court was also considering challenges to emergency rule and a decision was expected by Friday.
Late Wednesday, Musharraf decreed new amendments to the constitution using powers he said he has under the emergency.
One of the amendments states that his decisions cannot be challenged by any court and will be considered "always to have been validly made."
Also Wednesday, the government freed more jailed political activists, including two of Musharraf's key opponents.
Law Minister Afzal Hayder announced on state television Wednesday that the government had released 5,634 lawyers and political party members. He said 623 people remained in custody, but that they would be let go soon.
Those freed included Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has become a firebrand in the opposition to Musharraf's rule. Khan said he would continue a hunger strike begun in custody and boycott the election in hopes of forcing Musharraf to give up all power.
"Musharraf is staging a drama to deceive America and the West whom he scared [by saying] that without him the nuclear bomb will get into extremist hands," Khan told reporters.
Some people have voiced concerns that the crisis could undermine the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, but the top U.S. military officer said this week that there were no signs of that.
Also freed was Javed Hashmi, acting president of the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf's most dogged foe.
In a phone interview with the Associated Press, Hashmi called for opposition parties to boycott the parliamentary vote to avoid giving credibility to Musharraf.
The government also claims to have freed former Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, his family and five other judges purged from the high court when Musharraf suspended the constitution.
But those judges have not been seen in public and their supporters claim they remain under house arrest.
Musharraf may step down by Saturday
On Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch blasted the continued detentions and demanded the judges be released.
"Musharraf should end his ugly vendetta against the judges and free Chaudhry, his family and the other judges immediately," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Qayyum toldthe Associated Presson Wednesday that Musharraf would quickly fulfil his promise to quit his army post and be sworn in for a new five-year presidential term as a civilian.
"It may happen on Saturday … I know the president and he will honour his commitment," Qayyum said.
Opposition spokesman Farhatullah Babar said it was too soon for the party to express any opinion on the possibility Musharraf might give up his powerful post as chief of the army.
Alliances for upcoming election
Washington has been hoping for a rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf, whom U.S. officials call a key ally in confronting the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
An alliance with her secular party would lend him badly needed democratic legitimacy.
Both Bhutto and Musharraf are calling for moderate political forces to reconcile and revitalize Pakistan's campaign against Islamic militants who have gained strength in the restive tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.
Bhutto, however, has talked recently of joining forces with Sharif to drive Musharraf from power if emergency rule is not swiftly ended.
But Sharif said that he had failed to convince her in a telephone conversation Wednesday to join him in the drastic step of boycotting the election.