ISLAMABAD, Pakistan A Supreme Court hand-picked by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf swiftly dismissed legal challenges to his continued rule on Monday, opening the way for him to serve another five-year term this time solely as a civilian president.
The opposition has denounced the new court, saying any decisions by a tribunal stripped of independent voices had no credibility. Musharraf purged the court Nov. 3 when he declared emergency rule, days before the tribunal was expected to rule on his eligibility to serve as president.
The United States has put immense pressure on Musharraf to restore the constitution and free thousands of political opponents jailed under the emergency before Pakistan's critical parliamentary election Jan. 8.
Monday's court ruling could hasten Musharraf's decision to give up his army post. The general has said he would quit as armed forces commander by the end of the month, assuming he was given the legal go-ahead by the court to remain as president.
Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar dismissed three opposition petitions challenging Musharraf's victory in a disputed presidential election last month, saying two had been "withdrawn" because opposition lawyers were not present in court.
The third was withdrawn by a lawyer for the party of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who suggested the court was illegitimate.
"We asked for (the case) to be postponed because we said there is no constitution," she told reporters in Karachi after a meeting with the U.S. ambassador. She said she had no plans to revive power-sharing negotiations with Musharraf, broken off after the general's decision to declare emergency rule.
"We are not going back to the former track," Bhutto said. "We are interested in a roadmap for democracy, but we do not have the confidence that Gen. Musharraf's regime could give us that road map."
One of Musharraf's first acts after seizing extraordinary powers was to purge the Supreme Court of independent-minded judges. Opponents had argued that he ought to be disqualified under a constitutional ban on public servants running for elected office, which they said applied because Musharraf was still army chief.
Imran Khan, an opposition leader best known for his career as a Pakistani cricket star, began a hunger strike at a jail in Lahore on Monday, demanding the reinstatement of fired judges. His former wife, Jemima Khan, told The Associated Press in an e-mail from London that her ex-husband was serious and planned to keep up the protest until the judges were restored.
Musharraf told the AP last week that he expected the retooled court to quickly endorse his re-election, and he was right. Deliberations lasted less then a day on the most serious cases challenging Musharraf.
The court said it would rule Thursday on another petition from a man whose candidacy for the Oct. 6 presidential election was rejected by the election commission. Only then can it authorize the election commission to announce Musharraf the winner of the vote.
An official in Musharraf's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said Monday's ruling kept the general on track to quit the army by the end of November.
With pressure mounting to get the country on a path to democracy, the government on Monday set Jan. 8 as the date for the parliamentary elections.
The opposition has threatened to boycott, saying a vote held while its members are detained and its freedom to assemble blocked would have no validity. They also have questioned the neutrality of a caretaker government installed by Musharraf last week.
Despite an outcry both here and in Washington, there were no indications Musharraf intended to lift his state of emergency before the vote.
In his first public comments since a sit-down with Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Musharraf vowed that the elections would be fair, but also defended the emergency, which has seen thousands of the general's opponents jailed, the judiciary purged and independent media muzzled.
"I took this decision in the best interest of Pakistan," Musharraf said at a ceremony late Sunday to inaugurate a bridge in the southern port city of Karachi.
"I could have said thank you and walked away," he told the state news agency. "But this was not the right approach because I cannot watch this country go down in front of me after so many achievements and such an economic turnaround."
Musharraf urged the opposition not to boycott the vote, saying that any who do would be acting because they feel they cannot win not because the playing field is unfair.
Negroponte, Washington's No. 2 diplomat, was blunt in comments Sunday after his meetings with Musharraf and other senior military and political figures, saying the emergency rule was "not compatible with free, fair and credible elections."
But Pakistan was quick to dismiss those concerns, saying the senior American diplomat brought no new proposals on his weekend visit, and received no assurances after urging Musharraf to restore the constitution.The face-off leaves the Bush administration with limited options in steering its nuclear-armed ally back toward democracy. Senior Bush administration officials have said publicly that they have no plans to cut off the billions of dollars in military aid that Pakistan receives each year.
Associated Press writers Sadaqat Jan, Stephen Graham and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.