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Human Rights Advocates Slam Pakistan's Musharraf

Human rights groups are sharply criticizing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's decision to suspend the country's constitution and declare emergency rule. Human rights advocates testified about the situation in Pakistan Friday before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Capitol Hill.

In the two weeks since General Musharraf declared a state of emergency, human rights groups have been harshly critical of his decision to arrest thousands of opposition politicians, lawyers and other activists.

While President Musharraf is promising to hold elections in early January, he has indicated that current restrictions on the media and public gatherings will remain in place.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says if emergency rules are still in place, it will make genuine campaigning impossible and undercut the election results.

"Our view is that an election held without all of these things happening, releasing prisoners, lifting the emergency and restoring the judiciary and the constitution, is not going to be a free and fair election," he said. "It is not even going to be a partial step forward under those circumstances, because what it will create is another illegitimate government."

General Musharraf says he declared a state of emergency to battle suicide bombers and al-Qaida terrorists who are trying to destabilize the country.

Most of the people arrested, however, have been moderates, fueling suspicions that General Musharraf suspended the constitution to retain his grip on power.

Jennifer Leonard is with the International Crisis Group.

"This is the imposition of martial law by somebody who is more afraid of secular politicians, lawyers and journalists than he is of jihadi groups," she said. "In our estimation his objective is to retain personal power by gaining judicial approval for this martial law, followed by the democratic fa├žade of rigged elections."

General Musharraf has been a key ally of the United States in the war on terror, and the Bush administration has given Pakistan more than $10 billion in financial aid since 2001.

T. Kumar of Amnesty International says the United States should not be so supportive of the Musharraf government.

"It is not about Pakistan alone," he said. "This is about the U.S. and whether the U.S. is ready to save itself from moving in the direction where they become supporters of dictators and abusers around the world. We do not want the U.S. to go back to the Cold War era where they propped up all the dictators."

General Musharraf says he will step down as head of the Army by the end of this month, but has indicated he will not relinquish his uniform until a newly formed Supreme Court rules that his recent reelection to a new term as president is legal.

Since the general instituted emergency rule, militants in Pakistan have extended their reach beyond their traditional stronghold in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

They now are largely in control of Swat, a mountainous area north of Islamabad that is a favorite vacation destination for average Pakistanis.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says President Musharraf's rule is undermining Pakistan's stability and U.S. support of the general has backfired.

"It is just indisputable now that Musharraf has probably done more to destabilize Pakistan than al-Qaida could have done in its wildest dreams by itself," he added. "By clinging to Musharraf the Bush administration has done more to discredit the United States among ordinary Pakistanis than America's enemies could ever have done alone in their wildest dreams."

Amnesty International and 11 other human rights groups have sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging the United States to suspend all security assistance to Pakistan until the state of emergency is lifted.