ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Sunday that Pakistan will stick to its January schedule for parliamentary elections but set no time limit on emergency rule, raising grave doubts about whether the crucial vote can be free or fair.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, speaking two days after she was briefly put under house arrest, said the schedule for elections was "a first positive step," but with emergency rule in place, it would be "difficult" to campaign.
Other opposition parties were more strident, saying Musharraf's sweeping powers, which have already led to thousands of arrests and a ban on rallies, would make a mockery of the democratic process.
The attorney-general also announced Sunday that military courts could now try civilians on charges ranging from treason to inciting public unrest. A leading Pakistani rights activist, currently under house arrest, said it showed the U.S.-backed general had imposed martial law.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Musharraf's pledge to hold elections by Jan. 9 but expressed concern that he had not set a time limit for restoring citizens' rights.
"It's not a perfect situation," Rice said.
Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, appeared defiant but bitter at rising criticism of his decision to suspend the constitution a week ago, a step he says was necessary to combat rising Islamic militancy that had sown "turmoil, shock and confusion" in Pakistan.
"It was the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life," Musharraf told his first news conference since declaring the emergency Nov. 3.
"I could have preserved myself, but then it would have damaged the nation. I found myself between a rock and a hard surface. I have no personal ego and ambitions to guard. I have the national interest foremost," he said, sitting on a raised dais at the grand presidential palace in Islamabad.
He voiced anger over the "aspersions" cast on his commitment to fighting Taliban and al-Qaida militants, and his commitment to democracy.
His defense is unlikely to dispel suspicions shared by many in Pakistan that the emergency — launched ahead of a Supreme Court ruling that could have nixed his plans to serve another five-year term — was motivated by his own determination to stay in power.
Musharraf justified the dismissal of independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and many of his Supreme Court colleagues — who had emerged this year as the only real check on his power — as necessary for the government to function smoothly and fight terrorism.
He also claimed the state of emergency, under which he has blacked out independent TV networks and suspending many civil rights, was essential for "absolutely fair and transparent elections."
He declared the current parliament would be dissolved in the coming week, and that Pakistan would invite international observers to scrutinize the vote.
The United States and other key Western allies, who value Musharraf's support in fighting Taliban and al-Qaida, have pushed him to hold the elections on time, amid concerns they could have been pushed back by one year. But they could be worried by his refusal to commit to a date for lifting the emergency.
"The emergency contributes toward better law and order and a better fight against terrorism, and, therefore, all I can say is I do understand the emergency has to be lifted, but I cannot give a date for it," Musharraf said.
That drew sharp criticism from opposition parties.
"How can the elections be held in a free and fair manner when the emergency is in place?" asked Zafar Ali Shah, a senior leader of the opposition party of Nawaz Sharif, the now-exiled prime minister Musharraf ousted in his coup eight years ago.
Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesman for a coalition of hard-line opposition parties allied to Sharif, said leaders of the alliance would meet soon to consider a boycott and would appeal to Bhutto to join them to ensure the restoration of democracy and the constitution.
But Bhutto, who held months of talks with Musharraf on hatching a possible postelection alliance to fight religious extremism, sounded surprisingly conciliatory toward the military leader — just two days after she was placed under house arrest for a day to block her from addressing a political rally.
She welcomed Musharraf's announcement of a timeline for the vote as a "first positive step" while noting that holding it under a state of emergency would be "difficult."
She said Musharraf was sending mixed messages by announcing an election date while also giving new powers to military courts to try civilians, which she saw as a backward step for democracy. But she added that she had "not shut the door for talks" with the president.
Earlier, Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said the Pakistan Army Act had been amended to allow military courts to try people accused of treason, sedition, or "giving statements conducive to public mischief." That will add to concerns that the judiciary's ability to check the power of the executive or security services has been severely compromised through Musharraf's purging of the top ranks of the judiciary.
"The new amendments fully support the assertion that General Musharraf has not declared emergency, but imposed martial law," said Asma Jehangir, head of the private Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in an e-mail written from house arrest in Lahore.
Talat Masood, a retired general and now a political analyst, said current conditions were unsuitable for fair elections, including bias in the judiciary and election commission, mass detentions of opposition activists including their leaders, and the barring of the opposition from staging meetings and rallies, while the ruling party was still allowed to hold mass gatherings.
"All this shows it will be a very unequal playing field," Masood said.
Musharraf said opposition supporters who had been rounded up under emergency rule would be released to take part in the polls, but warned they could be detained again. Anyone who "disturbs law and order and wants to create anarchy in the name of elections and democracy, we will not allow that," he said.
Musharraf also declared he would give up his army uniform, but only once his controversial Oct. 6 presidential election victory had been endorsed — regarded by many observers as a formality now that he has remade the Supreme Court and ousted popular judges.
"The moment they give a decision ... I should take an oath of office as civilian president of Pakistan. I hope that happens as soon as possible," Musharraf said.
Musharraf launched a tirade against the recently deposed chief justice, Chaudhry, who became a thorn in the president's side this spring, when the general's botched bid to sack him over alleged abuse of office spawned a mass movement against military rule. The general defended the decision to oust the judge last Saturday, alleging that Chaudhry had engaged in corruption.
Musharraf said there was no chance that any of the Supreme Court judges who were removed or refused to take the oath of office under his "provisional" constitution would be reinstated.
On the streets of Islamabad, few seem persuaded that Musharraf, whose popularity has plummeted this year, wanted to restore democracy.
"I think the emergency will never go and he will never go," said takeout restaurant owner Musharraf Hussain, 32. "He will be the president and chief of army staff and democracy will not come until he leaves this universe."