Islamabad, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf lifted a six-week-old state of emergency Saturday, telling a skeptical nation the crackdown was to save Pakistan from a conspiracy rather than ensure his own political survival.
But Musharraf also made clear he would keep a tight lid on dissent, entrenching limits he imposed under the emergency including strict curbs on press freedom and the replacement of independent-minded judges with jurists friendlier to the U.S.-backed leader. Opponents have said the changes set the stage for national elections next month to be rigged, and have threatened to hold mass demonstrations.
Musharraf said in a nationally televised speech that the emergency helped slow the spread of Islamic militancy but the country still faces a "grave situation" with the approach of Jan. 8 parliamentary elections that will determine who will form the next government.
He said unnamed conspirators had hatched a plot with members of the judiciary to derail the country's transition to democracy, and he warned political parties to avoid stirring up trouble.
"Against my will, as a last resort, I had to impose the emergency in order to save Pakistan," Musharraf said. "I cannot tell how much pain the nation and I suffered due to this conspiracy."
The response was muted from the White House, which has walked a fine line between criticizing the democratic backsliding by Musharraf and supporting a key ally against Islamic militancy.
"It's a good step for the Pakistani people," said Jeanie Mamo, a spokeswoman for President Bush.
Musharraf has previously said he imposed the state of emergency to halt a conspiracy by top judges to end his eight-year rule, and to ward off political chaos that would hobble Pakistan's efforts against Islamic extremism. He has also insisted that the Supreme Court, which had been poised to rule on the legality of his October re-election, was acting beyond the constitution.
He said Saturday that the state of emergency had been critical to maintaining stability.
"There was no other personal objective," he said. "Thanks be to God, we have defeated that conspiracy. It is my commitment to the entire nation of Pakistan and to its people and to the world that the elections on Jan. 8 will be held on time and will be absolutely fair and transparent ... The democratic process has been put back again on the rails."
Ending the emergency and restoring the constitution eased a crackdown that has enraged opponents and worried Western supporters.
Still, Musharraf's leading opponents, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, warned of mass protests if they think the vote has been rigged in favor of Musharraf supporters.
"The electioneering has not started yet, but some parties are talking of rigging," Musharraf said. "They should refrain from such accusations. People should take part in the electioneering, cast their vote but should not indulge in any negative activity."
He said foreign election monitors were welcome to monitor the process.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. and Britain to pressure Musharraf "to insist on a genuine return to constitutional rule and the restoration of the judiciary."
"Musharraf's so-called return to constitutional rule provides legal cover to laws that muzzle the media and lawyers and gives the army a license to abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch's South Asia researcher.