ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - President Pervez Musharraf is set to end emergency rule on Saturday but it was likely media would still face curbs with many judges and lawyers still under house arrest before Pakistan’s election next month.
The government says constitutional rights will be restored but the opposition says Musharraf can still manipulate a general election win on January 8 for his allies and secure a power base despite growing unpopularity and unrest.
Citing spiralling militant violence, Musharraf imposed the emergency on November 3, suspended the constitution and purged the Supreme Court to fend off challenges to his re-election, which new hand-picked judges have since rubber-stamped.
Facing international condemnation, including from his ally the United States, Musharraf said he would restore the constitution in a move Western nations hope will stabilise the nuclear-armed state facing rising Islamic militant violence.
But some lawyers and judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who were deposed by Musharraf are still being held under house arrest. The Pakistani media criticised this week a ban on live broadcasts as an attempt to control election coverage.
The end of the emergency may not change that.
“I know I won’t be released, the lifting of the state of emergency will not change anything,” said Tariq Mehmood, a leading opposition lawyer who has been under house arrest since Musharraf imposed emergency rule.
“The army and Musharraf will still be in total control.”
Election monitors and many politicians fear Musharraf, despite calls for a fair vote, can rig the polls through a network of district chiefs, bogus votes and by excluding opposition supporters from ballot stations.
Attorney General Malik Qayyum said the government was considering an opposition demand to suspend district administrations for the polls.
Critics point out that Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup but stepped down as army chief last month, still has not vacated his army house.
The election is essentially a three-way battle between parties loyal to Musharraf and the parties of two main opposition leaders, former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf faces pressure to avoid losing because an opposition-run parliament could move to impeach him over accusations he acted unconstitutionally in securing a new term as president.
With political rallies banned, parties have been holding what they call smaller “meetings” to get round the regulations. The opposition holds out some hope that bigger rallies would be allowed as the campaign gets into gear after the weekend.
Critics are worried of amendments to give Musharraf protection from attempts in courts to prosecute him for breaking the constitution — a move that has been carried out before by rulers in Pakistan’s long history of military interference.
“When the emergency is lifted, the devil may be in the details,” said Nasim Zehra, a political analyst.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Richard Balmforth