11/15/2007, 00.00
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Countdown for democracy in Islamabad

by Qaiser Felix
After five years pro-Musharraf National Assembly is dissolved at the stroke of midnight tonight. Elections are scheduled for January 9 but arrests and human rights violations continue throughout the country. Justice and Peace Commission calls for a return to constitutional rule and an independent judiciary.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – The dissolution of the National Assembly at midnight tonight will set the countdown for the return to democracy, and 9 January 2008 is the deadline for parliamentary elections which will determine who will form the next government.

“This is a historic moment for all of us,” Information Minister Tariq Azeem said on Wednesday. “This will be the first time for 22 years that an assembly completes its mandate.”

The minister added that a caretaker government will be sworn in on Friday to oversee the upcoming general elections. It is also likely that the name of the caretaker prime minister will be announced later today.

President General Pervez Musharraf said he would step down as army chief after a Supreme Court ruling on the validity of his re-election, and begin a new presidential term as a civilian. He did not say however say that the Supreme Court was decimated by the proclamation of the state of emergency, de facto martial law, and that its president, Justice Chaudhry, was one of his staunchest opponents.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said that she was no longer interested in reaching a deal with the president, whom she accused of betraying the people by putting the army into the streets.

Speaking under house arrest, she said that the January elections will likely be a farse, adding that “Musharraf will continue to be the head of the ruling party in an open field, while all other actors are behind bars.”

For this reason the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party reached out to her historic opponent of the general, Nawaz Sharif, also a former prime minister living in exile and a leader of the more Islamic-oriented camp, who was expelled a few weeks ago after trying to come home. According to some reports, Mr Sharif is willing to co-operate with his former rival.

Another important player, former cricket champion Imran Khan, was arrested yesterday as he tried to organise a new anti-government protest. Hundreds of his supporters were also taken into custody.

Many Christians from the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) were arrested in the last few days. Only yesterday about a hundred Christian activists were beaten in Lahore, APMA Chairman Shahbaz Bhatti told AsiaNews, as they tried to join Bhutto’s long protest march.

The Bishops Conference’s National Commission for Justice and Peace has also waded into the fray, issuing a statement calling for an immediate end to the state of emergency and a return to constitutional rule.

In a joint statement signed by Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha and NCJP Executive Secretary Peter Jacob, the organisation called for the respect for the rule of law, the immediate and unconditional release of detainees, and the restoration of an independent judiciary.

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