Crisis fears make Pakistan court hurry Musharraf case

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court said on Friday it will quickly wrap up hearing challenges to President Pervez Musharraf’s re-election, after an earlier plan for a 10-day adjournment raised fears emergency rule might be declared.

The court will reconvene on Monday instead of November 12, which would have been just three days before Musharraf’s current term ends, heightening a sense of suspense in a country already trembling from a wave of suicide attacks by al Qaeda-inspired militants.

The court’s dallying had been a factor fuelling rumors Musharraf could invoke emergency powers and call off a vote due in January which is supposed to transform nuclear-armed Pakistan into a civilian-led democracy.

“The court will not take any blame for the controversy being created,” said Justice Javed Iqbal, head of the 11-member bench hearing the objections to U.S.-ally Musharraf contesting the presidency while still army chief.

As proceedings were wrapped up on Friday, Iqbal said efforts would be made “to conclude the case in the shortest possible time”.

Karachi’s stock market was still uneasy over the political situation after dropping nearly three percent the previous day.

In late trade on Friday the benchmark index stood 0.25 percent down, as investors in what has been one of Asia’s best performing markets remained nervous.

The talk of an emergency or martial law also had prompted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to say any such move would be opposed by the United States and elections should go ahead next year.

“I am not going to get into the details of our conversations but I think it would be quite obvious that the United States would not be supportive of extra-constitutional means,” Rice told journalists traveling with her to Turkey.

FREE AND FAIR

“Pakistan needs to prepare for and hold free and fair elections,” said Rice, adding she had not spoken to Musharraf in recent days.

Coincidentally, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, was in Islamabad for talks with the Pakistani military leadership on Friday.

The security situation in Pakistan has deteriorated markedly, There were two suicide attacks this week that killed 15 people. One of them was less than half a kilometer from Musharraf’s army residence in Rawalpindi and the other was near an air base.

Paramilitary forces are also battling pro-Taliban militants in Swat, a valley in North West Frontier Province where around 180 people have perished in fighting over the past week.

Most diplomats and analysts doubt whether Musharraf’s re-election by parliament on October 6 will be ruled invalid by the court. The judges are more likely to bind him to future actions like getting his presidency endorsed by the next parliament.

How Musharraf might react is anybody’s guess if the court, regarded as hostile since he tried to oust the chief justice last March, did disqualify him from re-election.

Musharraf has already said he will quit as army chief if he’s given a second term, and he’s allowed one opposition leader, two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, back from self-imposed exile to lead her party into the national elections.

There is little chance of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in 1999, also being allowed to return. Sharif is still in Saudi Arabia, having been put on a plane to the Kingdom after his attempt to come back from exile was blocked in September.

Western diplomats say elections won’t be free and fair, just fairer than in the past, and while Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party could get a clear run, Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, known as PML-N, can expect interfence.

“The United States is particularly interested in seeing (the) People’s Party has a relatively level playing field, notably in Punjab,” said one diplomat, referring to Pakistan’s most populous central province.

Having delayed a trip back to Dubai to see her family on Wednesday because of talk of emergency rule, Bhutto flew there on Thursday. Aides say she could be back early next week, and she has plans for a public meeting in Rawalpindi on November9.

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