Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf has declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. In a nationally broadcast address, he partly blamed the judiciary for bringing Pakistan to what he called "the verge of destabilization." VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that Mr. Musharraf's critics say the move undermines democracy and will inflame militants.
Hours after security forces blocked off key streets near government buildings and shut down phone lines and independent news stations, Mr. Musharraf appeared on state television to explain his decision. "Kindly understand the criticality of the environment inside Pakistan and around Pakistan," he said. "Pakistan is on the verge of destabilization."
The president cited rising violence from Islamic militants and a series of judicial decisions in recent months that he said have demoralized law enforcement officials, set known terrorists free and undermined his efforts to move the country toward democracy.
Mr. Musharraf - who spoke wearing civilian clothing, not his military uniform - said ever since he seized power in a military coup in 1999, he has been following a plan to return Pakistan to democratic rule. But he said the courts have undermined the transition. "Therefore I had to take this action in order to preserve the democratic transition which I initiated eight years back," he said.
The Supreme Court was expected to deliver a verdict in the coming days in a case that could overturn President Musharraf's unofficial re-election last month. Mr. Musharraf has sworn in a new group of senior judges, including a new Supreme Court chief justice. He issued a provisional constitutional order that suspended some fundamental rights. And a new press ordinance bans publication of news about terrorist bombings and material that disrespects the head of state.
Mr. Musharraf's critics accused him of seizing power because he feared the Supreme Court would rule against him. "What is going to happen in Pakistan is that it's going to head towards anarchy," said Imran Khan, leader of the Movement for Justice opposition party. "There will be more militancy in the country, there will be more people picking up arms because he's blocked the legal and democratic channels through which people could express their views."
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who abruptly returned to Pakistan Saturday after visiting family in Dubai, said Mr. Musharraf was imposing martial law, and Pakistanis would protest against it.
News reports indicate several of Mr. Musharraf's critics and political opponents, including Supreme Court justices and opposition leader Khan, were detained or placed under house arrest.
On Saturday evening in front of the President's House, about 50 protesters gathered at the police barriers, repeating a phrase frequently uttered by Pakistanis who are eager for the president to step down: "Go Musharraf Go. Go Musharraf Go. Go Musharraf Go."
Nearby security forces stood idle as the protesters chanted.