Pakistan’s Bhutto Released

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto has been released.

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was freed from house arrest late on Friday, hours after she was stopped from leaving her Islamabad home to lead a rally against the president’s imposition of emergency rule.

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Bhutto, the politician most capable of galvanizing mass protests against Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule, appealed to police to let her through their cordon. “The government has been paralyzed,” Bhutto shouted to supporters across a barbed-wire barricade. “If he restores the constitution, takes off his uniform, gives up the office of the chief of army staff and announces an election by January 15, then it’s okay,” she said, vowing defiance if Musharraf did not comply.

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It remains to be seen whether Musharraf, who had viewed Bhutto as a potential ally, can control events set in train by his shock decision last Saturday to impose emergency rule and suspend the constitution. He has sacked most of the country’s judges, putting senior officials — including former chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry — under house arrest, and ordered police to round up the majority of the opposition leadership and anyone else deemed troublesome.

The White House said earlier on Friday it remained concerned about the continued state of emergency “and curtailment of basic freedoms” in Pakistan. “Former prime minister (Benazir) Bhutto and other political party members must be permitted freedom of movement and all protesters released,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said 2,500 people had been detained since the emergency was declared at the weekend, though Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party say 5,000 of their activists have been picked up in the past couple of days.

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Under fire from Western allies and the international community, and with an angry Bhutto on his doorstep, Musharraf has become increasingly isolated, fuelling concern about instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. “The concern I have is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.

One hopes the release of Bhutto is a sign that Musharraf realizes he has overplayed his hand.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.