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Musharraf Pledges January Elections Possible Under Emergency Rule

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf says he expects national elections will be held on schedule in January, but refuses to say when he will end emergency rule. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad, where General Musharraf insisted that state of emergency laws that suspend basic rights actually help ensure free elections.

President Musharraf defended the arrest of thousands of protesters, lawyers and judges and the blackout of independent news broadcasts, saying the actions have been necessary to preserve law and order.

He indicated those tactics could continue into the election campaign season to ensure the polls, which he expects before January ninth, are fair.

"Certainly the emergency is required to ensure peace in Pakistan, to ensure an environment conducive to elections," Mr. Musharraf said.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto later welcomed the setting of an election date as a "first positive step." But Ms. Bhutto, who plans to lead a protest march on Tuesday against the suspension of the constitution and the detention of senior judges, said it would be difficult to hold elections under the emergency laws.

During an hour-long news conference, General Musharraf repeatedly blamed the Supreme Court for triggering the imposition of emergency rule. He accused former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry of corruption, violations of legal procedures and intentionally dragging out a decision on the presidential election last month.

The president vowed judges who had been removed from the court and by now had not sworn an oath to the new provisional constitution would never be reinstated.

"Those who have not taken the oath are gone - they are no more judges. The Supreme Court has been formed, the high courts are there and these are the final high courts and Supreme Court," Mr. Musharraf said.

The new Supreme Court, consisting of judges considered to be sympathetic to General Musharraf, is still considering the challenge to his re-election eligibility.

Much of Pakistan's legal community has denounced the new courts as a sham and lawyers have said they will refuse to work with them.

It is unclear when General Musharraf will honor his pledge to step down as army chief. He said once the Supreme Court verifies the legality of his re-election victory and notifies the election commission, he will take the presidential oath. The president has said before that he will step down as army chief before taking the oath.

Throughout the news conference, Mr. Musharraf insisted that his decision to impose emergency rule was in Pakistan's best interest - and not an attempt to prolong his presidential tenure. He said emergency rule brings Pakistan back on a democratic path that was being threatened by the judiciary.

"By adopting the course I have. Actually, I have put the derailed path of democracy back on the rails," Mr. Musharraf said.

Mr. Musharraf said he was aware of international reaction to his decision to impose emergency rule, but said he was not concerned about countries cutting off foreign aid.