Thousands in Chitral in Pakistan took to the streets on Tuesday in support of former President Pervez Musharraf, after a court imposed a lifetime ban on him contesting elections, derailing his efforts to regain influence by winning a seat in parliament.
It was the first time a court in Pakistan had declared a citizen ineligible from contesting elections for life.
The former army chief returned to Pakistan last month after nearly four years of self-imposed exile to contest a May 11 general election, but election officers disqualified him because of court cases pending against him.
The High Court in the north-western city of Peshawar rejected Musharraf’s appeal against the disqualification.
Thousands of supporters carrying banners and flags of Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) Party marched through the streets of Chitral.
Musharraf has a strong support base in Chitral, where he took a personal interest in completing a long-stalled mountain tunnel.
“The ban on Pervez Musharraf is totally unjustified. The work that he did for Chitral had never been done for us in years. Chitral is indebted to him. He should have contested elections from Chitral, he should have been given permission to do so,” said shopkeeper Mohammad Din.
The mountain tunnel, called the Lowari Tunnel, connects the isolated Chitral Valley to the rest of the province.
Heavy snowfall on the Lowari Top would make Chitral a landlocked district in winter and, although the tunnel is yet to be formally opened, residents have been using it for the last five years.
“Musharraf made the Lowari Tunnel for us. He is our saviour. We could not cross the Lowari Top throughout the winter. Now we can go to Peshawar via the Lowari Tunnel and return home in one day. It has solved many of our problems,” said social worker Gul Sambar Khan.
The gathered crowds demanded that Musharraf be released and allowed to contest the election and many said they would vote for candidates of Musharraf’s APML party who were contesting the election from Chitral.
“The ban on Pervez Musharraf is very wrong. He did so much for us. For Chitral there is no better option than Musharraf,” added another supporter, Hussain Ahmed.
Instead of triggering a hoped-for groundswell of popular support, Musharraf’s return has backfired. He became the first former army chief to be arrested in Pakistan when police took him into custody at their headquarters last Friday.
On April 20, a court remanded the former president in custody for two weeks, a deadline set to expire on May 4, as judges pushed ahead with plans to put Musharraf on trial for a crackdown on the judiciary during his time in office.
On Tuesday, an anti-terrorism court in the garrison city of Rawalpindi put Musharraf on a 14-day judicial remand for charges of failing to provide adequate security for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before her 2007 assassination.
The new deadline of May 14 means Musharraf will be in detention on election day.
The elections are seen as a key moment in Pakistan’s attempts to shake off a legacy of decades of military rule as they represent the first time a democratically elected civilian government has completed a term in office.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999, is seen as the front runner.
Musharraf also faces accusations in connection with the death of a separatist leader in the south-western province of Baluchistan. He denies any wrongdoing.