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(Washington, DC) - Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s insistence on holding onto the office of army chief as well as the presidency prevents Pakistan from returning to the rule of law under its constitution, Human Rights Watch said today.

Musharraf plans to hold national and provincial assembly votes for the presidency before the general elections due by the end of the year to ensure his reelection as a president in uniform. Pakistan’s constitution requires that the National Assembly, Senate and the four provincial assemblies elect the president.

Under the Pakistani constitution, however, a presidential election would be illegal unless Musharraf ceases to be army chief. In an April 27 newspaper interview, Musharraf said that the current parliament, where a military-backed party holds a majority, would vote for president by October, before national elections in November. This would ensure his reelection as president and continuation as army chief. The tenure of the current assemblies is scheduled to expire in October.

“Musharraf intends to bypass the democratic process once again by staging an illegal presidential election ahead of the parliamentary vote,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Pakistan needs legitimate parliamentary and presidential elections to get back on the path to genuine democratic rule. Anything else would be a sham.”

Since taking power in a 1999 coup, Musharraf has remained as army chief and president, even though the Pakistani constitution prohibits the chief of the army from holding political office. In 2003, Musharraf pledged to cede one of the posts by December 2004. But he publicly reneged on this pledge a year later.

As president, Musharraf has arbitrarily amended the Pakistani constitution to strengthen the power of the presidency, marginalize elected representatives, and formalize the role of the army in government. Under Musharraf, military impunity for abuses has increased manifold. These abuses include extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and the persecution of political opponents.

On March 9, Musharraf summoned the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhury, to his office and illegally suspended him for alleged “misuse of office.” The move has sparked outrage across Pakistan and has been condemned by international and Pakistani lawyers’ bodies and human rights groups.

The constitutional crisis over the judiciary has been exacerbated by Musharraf’s latest statements concerning the presidential elections. “Elections in Pakistan will be held, I think, in November,” Musharraf said in the April 27 newspaper interview. “I expect the political grouping that supports me to win again, although my mandate will be extended in September or October in the parliament.”

“Musharraf has made the presidency the most powerful position in the country,” said Adams. “It’s vital that Pakistani voters decide who holds this position, not the army or Musharraf himself.”

Human Rights Watch called on Musharraf’s international supporters, particularly the United States and United Kingdom, to press Musharraf to prepare free and fair elections to facilitate a genuine return to civilian rule. The United States has put hardly any pressure on Musharraf to step down as army chief or president since he reneged on his promise. US and British officials have consistently defended Musharraf’s rule.

“The Bush administration claims that democracy is one of its foreign policy priorities, but it has failed to pressure Musharraf to end military rule,” said Adams “Now the question is whether the US, Britain or Pakistan’s other allies will insist upon an election in which Pakistanis choose their own leaders.”

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