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Challenges to Musharraf rejected

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A high court stacked with loyalists set the stage yesterday for Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to resign as army chief and to lead the country as a civilian, tossing out all legal challenges to his re-election last month.

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, is expected to step down from his military post as early as this weekend, shedding the uniform he has called his "second skin." While that would satisfy a key demand, the move is unlikely to mollify opponents, who continued yesterday to demand that he lift the state of emergency he declared Nov. 3.

Thousands of anti-Musharraf political activists, human rights workers and lawyers have been arrested under the decree, which suspended Pakistan's constitution and basic civil liberties. Opposition parties say such repressive measures make a farce of parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8.

Yesterday's Supreme Court rulings fulfilled what most analysts agree was Musharraf's real motive in declaring emergency rule, beyond his stated reason that he needed sweeping powers to quell an Islamic insurgency on the country's fringes.

A majority of the 10 justices on the current high court are hand-picked replacements for independent-minded judges whom the Pakistani leader sacked before they could rule on the legal challenges to his continued presidency.

The newly constituted bench threw out five petitions alleging that Musharraf's Oct. 6 re-election by lawmakers was invalid, in part because of his dual role as president and head of the army. A sixth petition stemming from the poll but not directly related to Musharraf's candidacy, is expected to be heard - and also dismissed - Thursday.

That would clear the way for Musharraf to make good on his pledge to step down as army chief and take the oath as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court certified the election result.

Malik Abdul Qayyum, the attorney general, said it was unlikely that Musharraf's resignation and swearing-in would take place immediately after Thursday's hearing because of procedural matters. But he ruled out a lengthy delay. "It won't take long - maybe one or two days," he said.

Opposition leaders quickly denounced the court rulings as illegitimate because the bench was stacked with Musharraf's allies. Critics scoffed at how some of the challenges were struck down on grounds of "non-prosecution," meaning the people who filed them or the attorneys arguing the cases were not in court.

"They are in jail," Athar Minallah , a lawyer and member of one of Musharraf's early Cabinets, said angrily. "What happened today was very absurd."

Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto broke off talks last week about sharing power with Musharraf.

"We are not going back to the former track," Bhutto said yesterday in her hometown of Karachi. "We are interested in a road map for democracy, but we do not have the confidence that General Musharraf's regime could give us that road map."

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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