(New York)—Human Rights Watch today expressed alarm at the decision by General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to declare a state of emergency in the wake of the coup on October 12, 1999. The group called for a return to civilian democratic rule as soon as possible, and for the Pakistani army in the meantime to guarantee full protection of civil liberties.

"This crisis is the culmination of the long erosion of fundamental freedoms in Pakistan," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Whatever government comes to power now must ensure that the rights of all Pakistani citizens are protected."

In declaring the state of emergency, Gen. Musharraf suspended Pakistan's constitution and ordered that "no judgment, decree, writ, order of process whatsoever shall be made or issued by any court or tribunal against the Chief Executive or any authority designated by the Chief Executive." Human Rights Watch is concerned that under the order Pakistan's courts will not be able to protect citizens against arbitrary arrest and detention.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, members of the dismissed government, and other officials are believed to be in the army's "protective custody." Human Rights Watch urges that all members of the former government be given access to lawyers and family and be accorded full rights of due process.

Human Rights Watch noted that by suppressing opposition-led demonstrations and strikes, curtailing civil rights through repressive ordinances, and persecuting independent NGOs and journalists, the Sharif administration had left civil society battered. A weakened judiciary was able to provide little protection against for the encroachment on civil liberties. While Sharif's authoritarianism in no way justifies the army's actions, any future government in Pakistan will face a substantial challenge to restore the weakened institutions and respect for the rule of law.

As the Islamabad-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan urged in a statement on October 13, "The new government will have to be notably marked by transparency, accountability...and genuine respect for people's rights."