ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Pervez Musharraf lifted a six-week-old state of emergency Saturday, saying he imposed it as a last resort to save Pakistan from destruction from a conspiracy.
Musharraf said in a nationally televised address that unnamed conspirators had hatched a plot with members of the judiciary to derail the country's transition to democracy. Parliamentary elections, scheduled for Jan. 8, will determine who will form the next government.
"Against my will, as a last resort, I had to impose the emergency in order to save Pakistan," Musharraf said. "The conspiracy was hatched to destabilize the country. I cannot tell how much pain the nation and I suffered due to this conspiracy."
Musharraf has previously said he imposed the state of emergency to halt a "conspiracy" by top judges to end his eight-year rule and ward off political chaos that would hobble Pakistan's efforts against Islamic extremism. He has also insisted that the Supreme Court, which had been poised to rule on the legality of his October re-election, was acting beyond the constitution.
"Now the conspiracy has been foiled, and the election will be held on Jan. 8 ... in a free and fair manner," he said in the 20-minute address.
Ending the emergency and restoring the constitution eased a crackdown that has enraged opponents and worried Western supporters.
But the order contained a controversial clause that entrenched decisions Musharraf made under the emergency, including strict curbs on press freedom and the replacement of independent-minded judges with jurists friendlier to Musharraf. Such decisions "shall not be called into question by or before any court," the clause said.
Both Musharraf and his Western backers say they want the election to produce a stable, moderate government strong enough to stand up to a wave of Islamic militancy.
However, the clampdown has prompted his leading opponents, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, to warn of mass demonstrations if they think the vote has been rigged in favor of pro-Musharraf rivals.
Musharraf warned political parties not to stir up trouble as the country faces another grave period.
"I regret some parties are boycotting the election while there is no justification," Musharraf said. "The electioneering has not started yet, but some parties are talking of rigging. They should refrain from such accusations. People should take part in the electioneering, cast their vote but should not indulge in any negative activity."
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. and Britain to pressure Musharraf "to insist on a genuine return to constitutional rule and the restoration of the judiciary."
"Musharraf's so-called return to constitutional rule provides legal cover to laws that muzzle the media and lawyers and gives the army a license to abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch's South Asia researcher.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he spoke with Musharraf by phone Saturday.
"Concrete measures should include increased transparency of the electoral process, prevention of local government abuse, a nonpartisan election commission, release of remaining political detainees and the lifting of all restrictions on the media," Brown said.
Bhutto, who has not ruled out cooperating with Musharraf, called the end of the emergency a good first step but said her party still worries the elections may be rigged.
"I ask all the political parties not be naive and try to foil the rigging plan through all possible means," she said during a campaign stop in Quetta.
Liaquat Baloch, a senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami — Pakistan's largest Islamic party — called Musharraf's move a "fraud."
"Musharraf had two targets — getting through the illegal process of his election and purging the judiciary of independent-minded judges — and he achieved both targets," Baloch said.
The president on Friday removed a condition from the constitution stating that civil servants — including army officers — had to wait two years after their retirement before running for elected office, Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told The Associated Press.
Musharraf stepped down as army chief only last month.
Qayyum said other changes sealed the retirement of purged Supreme Court judges. Their replacements swiftly approved Musharraf's re-election in October by a Parliament stacked with his supporters.
Jamaat-e-Islami — Pakistan's largest Islamic party — withdrew its 130 candidates for Parliament and 450 nominations for provincial assemblies in protest against Musharraf's dismissal of judges, spokesman Ameerul Azim said.
"This is a fraud election. We are boycotting unless the judges are restored," he said.