ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani journalists marked Sunday as a "black day" to condemn police beatings during opposition protests against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's pursuit of another five-year term.
Musharraf picked up a key legal victory Saturday when the Election Commission declared him a qualified candidate for the Oct. 6 vote — as lawyers and opposition activists staged protests on a broad, tree-lined avenue in front of the commission building in the capital, Islamabad.
Protesters clashed with police, who wielded batons and fired tear gas to disperse them before turning on journalists covering the melee.
Sixty-four people were injured, including 13 police officials, 31 journalists, two opposition lawmakers and several passers-by, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported Sunday, citing an official statement issued overnight.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists decried the "shameful tactics" by a government that has claimed to promote press freedoms, said Mushtaq Minhas, president of the press club in Islamabad.
As part of the "black day," journalists planned to hold rallies, wear black armbands and hoist black flags on press club buildings throughout the country, he said.
"What happened yesterday was shameful and the darkest day in Pakistan's history," Minhas said, accusing the government of increasing intolerance of independent media.
The protests came a day after the Supreme Court dismissed several petitions challenging Musharraf's candidacy, a decision strongly opposed by lawyers and opposition groups.
Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim and a lawmaker from a pro-Musharraf party were also injured in the melee, after receiving a few punches from protesters before being rescued by aides and police.
Minhas said police registered cases under anti-terrorism laws implicating several journalists in the attack on Azim. "We condemn this dictatorial tactic," he said.
More legal maneuvers are expected from the opposition — a request for the Supreme Court to review its decision and a planned mass resignation from Parliament — but Musharraf appears to have cleared the biggest hurdles to contesting the vote by federal and provincial lawmakers.
Despite dwindling popularity and increasingly bitter opposition, Musharraf, a close U.S. ally, also seems set to win the election. The ruling coalition says it has the numbers it needs, and even the general's main challenger, retired Judge Wajihuddin Ahmed, has admitted he does not have much of a chance.
The Election Commission approved only six of the 43 candidates, including Ahmed, who was nominated by lawyers, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, vice chairman of ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. Fahim's party earlier said he would only run if Musharraf was disqualified.
The opposition alliance has said its lawmakers would quit Parliament on Tuesday to protest the general's candidacy, a move also aimed at depriving the election of legitimacy.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has pledged to give up his powerful post as army chief if he wins the election, but he has faced growing opposition since his failed attempt to oust Pakistan's top judge in March. He is also struggling to contain growing Islamic militancy and growing public sentiment that his alliance with Washington has fanned extremism.
Still, he has been trying to retake the initiative while clamping down on his most vociferous opponents.