ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (MCT) A day after being placed under house arrest, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto drove through the streets of Pakistan's capital Saturday, stopping several times to get out of her bullet-proof SUV and shake hands. But police stopped her from meeting the country's suspended chief justice.
Bhutto's short road trip Saturday could mean that the government is trying to improve its poor public image since embattled President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency Nov. 3. The country's attorney general also said the emergency would last only a month, although other government officials said the timeline is not yet certain.
But the government, facing international pressure and Pakistani backlash, also showed Saturday that it is still not willing to tolerate much dissent.
It expelled three British journalists two from the Daily Telegraph and one from the Sunday Telegraph after the Daily Telegraph ran an editorial Friday using an expletive to describe Musharraf and saying that Pakistan "has a strong claim to be the most dangerous country in the world." The government accused the newspaper of using "foul and abusive" language and gave the reporters 72 hours to leave.
The move raised worries that restrictions on the Pakistani media may be extended to the international press. The government has banned any coverage determined to be humiliating to Musharraf or his government, and private television news stations have been knocked off the air since Nov. 3.
Journalists protested the media curbs in Islamabad, shouting slogans against the government. Bhutto joined the journalists briefly and called for press freedom.
Her movements Saturday further solidified her claim to be the leader of an opposition movement.
Bhutto, who runs the Pakistan People's Party, returned to Pakistan after eight years in exile last month, under the shadow of a pending deal with Musharraf. But last weekend, Musharraf declared an emergency ahead of a ruling by the Supreme Court that could have thrown out his recent presidential election, although he says the emergency was to tackle Islamic militants and a hostile judiciary.
Since then, Bhutto has begun speaking out against Musharraf timidly at first, but with increasing boldness, especially after she was restricted to her home Friday to prevent her from attending a planned opposition rally in neighboring Rawalpindi. At least 5,000 supporters have been detained, she said.
Until Saturday, she had largely avoided talking about the Supreme Court, despite the fact that Musharraf has purged the court of all independent justices in the past week. She never demanded the restoration of the judiciary, saying only that a reinstatement of the constitution entailed restoring the justices.
The Supreme Court has also been hearing a case challenging an ordinance that drops pending corruption charges against Bhutto.
But on Saturday, her SUV flanked by police escorts, protecting her since a massive suicide blast at her homecoming procession in Karachi tried to get past police blockades near the chief justice's street, where he and other justices are being held under house arrest. "You should clear the way," she told the police.
Later, she stepped out of her vehicle and shook the hands of a supporter. "The People's Party believes in the rule of law," Bhutto said. "We further demand the release of the judges."
"This is a very good gesture she's making," said Fakhar Imam, the former speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan. "My assessment is, the way the streets are moving and the people are coming out, there's a good chance of the judiciary being restored."
Some people still insist that Bhutto is playing a double game, courting both the opposition and Musharraf, but supporters deny that.
"People have high hopes," said Raja Muhammad Shafqat Khan Abbasi, a lawyer and party stalwart who had lunch with Bhutto on Saturday after being detained by police Friday night. "Everybody's looking to her. She's a lady who can make a difference."