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Court Rejects Pakistani Opposition's Referendum Challenge - 2002-04-27

In Pakistan, the Supreme Court has rejected an opposition appeal to stop self-appointed President General Pervez Musharraf from holding a national referendum to extend his rule for another five years. The opposition argued the referendum was unconstitutional.

Pakistan's major opposition political and religious parties were among several petitioners challenging the national referendum. They argued the constitution gives parliament the authority to elect the president.

After days of deliberations and hearing legal arguments, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that President Musharraf's decision to hold the referendum was valid. Lawyers acting for opposition groups condemned the decision, saying it will undermine the rights of the Pakistani nation.

"I think it's a very sad day in the constitutional history of Pakistan. Our democracy has suffered," said Farooq Hassan, a lawyer for one of the main petitioners, Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest right-wing religious party. "Once again, the suspicions that were in the minds of the people, press, America and Europe have been proved correct that our judiciary doesn't have the strength to stand up like in most third world countries to an executive, which is particularly of the authoritarian kind."

General Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. He later declared himself president. The Supreme Court upheld his military coup, but ordered him to return the country to democratic rule by October 2002.

In the referendum, scheduled for Tuesday, General Musahrraf will ask the nation to allow him to serve another five years as president. He says this is necessary to continue the economic and political reforms his government has introduced. But General Musharraf promises to abide by the court ruling to hold national elections in October.

"I felt that, at this stage, any interference with, or impediment with, the process that the transient government was taking towards transition from an extra-constitutional order to the constitutional order, and revival of the constitution would jeopardize the safe, smooth and orderly transfer," said Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, a government lawyer.

Opposition parties in Pakistan have said they will boycott the referendum. But they have been unable so far to mobilize a popular movement against it. The military in Pakistan has ruled the country for more than half of its 55-year history.