ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Pervez Musharraf ended Pakistan's six-week-old state of emergency yesterday, restored the constitution and announced that he believes that emergency rule saved his country.
He also said coming parliamentary elections would be "absolutely fair and transparent" and invited international observers, despite widespread fears that the elections would be fixed in favor of Musharraf and his supporters.
"Some political leaders are talking about rigging when the elections take place on Jan. 8," Musharraf said in a 25-minute speech to the nation last night. "They are talking about this rigging when the campaign has not yet started. This is totally baseless."
In a move typical of his recent rule, the embattled president lifted the emergency hours earlier with a controversial three-page order that at one point said no one could legally challenge any government decision made under the emergency. Such decisions "shall not be called into question by or before any court," one clause said.
Musharraf's announcement eased fears of his Western backers, who worried that emergency rule could undermine his legitimacy and make it more difficult for him to fight in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Although Western allies say Musharraf's unpopularity and fight for political survival this year have distracted him from the threat from Islamic militants, they largely supported Musharraf throughout the emergency and issued only mild rebukes.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a key Musharraf ally along with the U.S. administration, said he asked Musharraf yesterday for a level playing field for all parties in the coming elections. "The international community supports his wish - and that of the people of Pakistan - to hold free and fair elections," Brown said.
Critics, from local political opponents to international human rights groups, warned that the real emergency in Pakistan continues, especially considering the routing of the once-independent judiciary.
Amnesty International said the Pakistani Constitution as it stands after emergency rule is "fundamentally flawed" and allows human rights violations to continue unchecked. Human Rights Watch called the restoration of the constitution "a sham."
Late Friday, Musharraf signed off on several last-minute amendments to the dormant constitution - including one that prevents the next parliament from challenging the legality of the emergency or trying to undo what happened under emergency rule.
As of yesterday, the Supreme Court judges who refused to sign the new oath to Musharraf were still under house arrest in Islamabad. The country's Interior Ministry said the judges' neighborhood would remain a "red zone" indefinitely.
Top lawyers who led the legal challenge that threatened to bring down Musharraf also remained under house arrest.
The news media are now banned from printing or broadcasting anything that "defames or brings into ridicule" top government officials or the armed forces. The government can also disbar lawyers accused of anti-government activities.
Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.