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Imran begins hunger strike to seek return of judiciary

By Omar Waraich in Islamabad and Andrew Buncombe

Imran Khan, Pakistan's cricketing idol-turned-politician, declared yesterday that he was beginning a hunger strike in protest at the state of emergency imposed in his country and the regime's seizure of the judiciary.

Hours after a panel of judges imposed by General Pervez Musharraf announced that a legal challenge to his election as the country's leader had failed, Mr Khan let it be known he was giving up food until an independent judiciary was restored. "He was in high spirits," his spokesman, Saifullah Niazi, said after visiting him. "He has decided to go on hunger strike, because he's in jail and there's nothing else he can do to protest. The only thing he has control over is his body."

Mr Khan's former wife, Jemima Khan, expressed concern about the impact such an action would have on his health. "He plans to keep it up until the judiciary is restored," she said.

Mr Khan, the head of the Pakistan Movement for Justice, is more than aware of the power of the media. Last week when he decided to emerge from hiding, having gone on the run in the aftermath of the emergency, he tipped off news organisations that he would be delivering a speech at a university in Lahore. The event turned to near farce when Mr Khan was instead seized by religious students and handed over to police before he could say a word.

Even from inside the jail – initially he was held in a cell with common criminals – Mr Khan knows well the importance of grabbing the headlines as his country continues to be besieged by political turmoil.

His spokesman added: "He said that the restoration of democracy cannot happen without the restoration of the judiciary."

General Musharraf told The Washington Post that Mr Khan was arrested on the grounds that he was "an agitator and trying to disturb the peace". The former cricket captain was arrested under the anti-terrorism act and is being held in solitary confinement at Dera Ghazi Khan prison in southern Punjab.

The general imposed a state of emergency on 3 November, just days before the Supreme Court was poised to rule on the legality of his election as president for a further five years. Having been tipped off that the judges were set to vote against him, he ousted the bench and appointed a set of hand-picked judges.

The new Chief Justice, Hameed Dogar, yesterday dismissed the pending challenges to General Musharraf's plans to remain president for a further five years. The President's opponents had argued that under the constitution, no army officer may stand for election within two years of resigning. He has promised to quit as army chief at the end of the month and serve as a civilian.

But in Pakistan there are no guarantees. A high-profile visit over the weekend by a US envoy failed to secure an agreement from General Musharraf as to when he will end the emergency. It is looking increasingly like parliamentary elections scheduled for January will take place with some elements of the emergency still in place.

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