updated 11/22/2004 2:06:47 PM ET 2004-11-22T19:06:47

After eight years in jail on corruption charges, the husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was released on bail Monday, officials said, in a move the government heralded as a step toward "political harmony" with her opposition party.

The Supreme Court on Monday granted bail to Asif Ali Zardari, who has been accused in a slew of cases alleging graft during his wife's two governments in the early 1990s.

Late Monday, Amanullah Niazi, deputy superintendent of Karachi Central Jail, said Zardari was freed after a lawmaker from Bhutto's party deposited the 1 million rupees (US$16,900; euro12,954) bail.

"We have received the release order. Zardari has been released," Niazi said.

Zardari's lawyer Farooq Naek confirmed that guards had been removed from his room at a Karachi hospital where he had been in custody.

Witnesses saw Zardari leave the hospital, and he was expected to give a press conference at his home in the southern city later Monday night.

"From our side he is released," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press. There had been some earlier doubts about whether state prosecutors could file another case against Zardari that could have prolonged his detention.

‘We will welcome his release’
"We will welcome his release. This will be good for political harmony."

Hundreds of supporters had gathered to celebrate the release of the 52-year-old former lawmaker and Cabinet minister, who has reportedly suffered high blood pressure and back pain.

"This is a victory for democracy," Zardari told the private Geo television network shortly after he was freed. "This is a victory for (Bhutto's) Pakistan People's Party. This is a victory for all of Pakistan."

Bhutto, who has lived in exile in London and Dubai since fleeing Pakistan in April 1999 to avoid arrest in graft cases, expressed hope she could be reunited with her husband outside Pakistan and eventually return home.

"His release will definitely have an impact (on politics in Pakistan)," Bhutto told Geo in a telephone interview from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. "I hope that the nation will get more good news as a result of this news," she said, without elaborating.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf — who took power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, toppling an elected government led by a successor of Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif — held parliamentary elections two years ago, but he firmly holds the reins of power.

His government has marginalized the main secular opposition groups — Bhutto's Pakistan's People's Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N — which accuse him of running a military dictatorship and of persecuting their leaders.

However, speculation is growing of a rapprochement with Bhutto, although the president has previously ruled out her taking a role in national politics.

Offer of talks with opposition groups
On Friday, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz offered to hold talks on key national issues with opposition groups — which say they are planning to stage street rallies in the weeks ahead to protest Musharraf's apparent intention to backtrack on a promise to stand down as army chief by the year's end and rule as a civilian.

Rusul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore's University of Management Sciences, said the government and Bhutto's party had likely reached some kind of political understanding to secure Zardari's release, but he didn't expect Bhutto to return to Pakistan soon.

In September, a court overturned Zardari's conviction for receiving kickbacks from the state-run Pakistan Steel Mills in 1995 for which he was sentenced for seven years.

However, he has remained in custody awaiting trial on at least nine other corruption and criminal cases, all registered against him since 1996 when Bhutto's last government fell. Her party contends that the cases are politically motivated.

In all the cases, he has either been granted bail or acquitted.

The last case adjudicated on Monday involved the import of a bulletproof BMW car. It is alleged he evaded paying customs duty.

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