- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan “Courtroom decorum gave way to a huge street brawl between police and lawyers yesterday when both groups “armed with sticks” formed impromptu battle lines and began swinging away in the shadow of Pakistan’s Supreme Court in Islamabad.

Journalists at one point joined the fray, beating up Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim as he tried to leave the nearby Election Commission building, where officials had just certified applications of President Pervez Musharraf and five other presidential candidates for an Oct. 6 election.
Photo Gallery: Unrest in Pakistan

Images of two or three bloodied protesters flooded the nation’s airwaves long after clouds of tear gas had cleared the tree-lined boulevard leading to the Supreme Court, where justices a day earlier had ruled Gen. Musharraf eligible for a second term as president.

At the height of the battle, however, transmissions of some TV news stations in Islamabad were blocked.

Lawyers and journalists said they had been deliberately attacked by police with unreasonable force.

The government, embarrassed at the outburst on the first day of a one-week presidential campaign, promised a full investigation.

“I can assure you this will not be a whitewash,” said Mr. Azim, the deputy information chief, who was punched and smacked on the head by angry journalists earlier in the day.

“It was all a democratic process, which was being conducted today, and I think whoever was responsible has to be taken to task,” he told Dawn television news.

Ironically, Mr. Azim had driven two journalists who had been injured by police to a nearby hospital and returned to the Election Commission, where he was attacked.

U.S. officials have remained deliberately low-key, avoiding public comment on Pakistani politics. However, the stakes for Washington’s war on terrorism are huge, with Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions thought to provide a base for Taliban efforts to retake Afghanistan and al Qaeda’s attempts to plot catastrophic attacks against U.S. and other Western targets.

Washington has given Pakistan more than $10 billion in aid in the six years since the September 11 attacks — part of a much larger investment of U.S. and NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

In Islamabad, about three dozen people were injured and a similar number arrested, Agence France-Presse reported.

Lawyers in Lahore held a similar demonstration, chanting anti-Musharraf slogans as they approached the provincial Election Commission building amid a heavy police presence. Police fired a single tear-gas shell, causing some discomfort, but otherwise stood by as about 200 lawyers spent a half hour shouting demands before retreating to the local bar association.

“Now it is time for Pakistan to grow its own democracy and institutions; otherwise, we cannot survive as a nation,” said lawyer Posef Bhati, who practices before the high court in Lahore.

Pakistan’s lawyers organized months of nationwide protests after Gen. Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March. Justice Chaudhry was reinstated by the Supreme Court four months later.

Gen. Musharraf, 64, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. He has promised to retire from the military if he is elected president, meaning Pakistan would have a civilian government for the first time in eight years.

The president is chosen by an electoral college consisting of the national parliament and regional legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces, where Musharraf loyalists outnumber a shrinking opposition.

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