A British man on Pakistan's death row for 18 years returned home Friday following an act of clemency by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
A gray-bearded and stoic Mirza Tahir Hussain, 36, emerged from a British Airways plane at Heathrow Airport — just hours after being freed from prison and flown out of Pakistan — to be greeted by his brother, Amjad.
"It has been a tremendous strain to be separated from my family and loved ones. I thank God for giving me the faith and strength to persevere. Freedom is a great gift," Hussain said in a prepared statement read by one of his most ardent supporters, European Parliament member Sajjad Haider Karim.
"I want to use this freedom to get to know my family again, to adjust back to living here, and to come to terms with my ordeal. ... My thoughts remain with all the prisoners I have left behind," said Hussain, who offered specific thanks to Musharraf, Prince Charles and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for their support.
Hussain, who faced death by hanging after being convicted of murdering a taxi driver in 1988, maintains he was defending himself from an armed sexual assault when Jamshed Khan was shot to death.
On Wednesday, after lobbying from Blair and Charles, Musharraf commuted Hussain's death sentence to life behind bars. Under Pakistani sentencing rules this equated to a 14-year term, meaning he had served his time, the president's office said.
Hussain's release was praised by human rights groups, which have long pointed to flaws in the charges he faced and the evidence used to convict him.
While brother Amjad Hussein traveled to Heathrow, other family members remained in their hometown of Leeds, northern England, to watch events on television news stations — and cried tears of joy at footage of the aircraft landing.
"I promised him it would happen and now it has come to pass through the grace of God," said Amjad Hussain, who last saw his brother in July in the high-security Adiala prison in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.
Objections aginst overruling of Islamic court
But hard-line Islamists in Pakistan said the president had acted illegally by overruling an Islamic court, which ordered Hussain to be hanged. Under Islamic law, the punishment must be carried out unless the victim's family decides to pardon him.
"The president has taken a step that is beyond his powers and has violated the country's laws," said Yahya Mujahid, spokesman for a militant-linked Islamic charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
The Briton's release came as Musharraf takes increasingly bold steps to challenge Islamic political forces ahead of 2007 parliamentary elections.
Prince Charles, who raised Hussain's case with Musharraf during a visit to Pakistan, was "very pleased" with the decision, the prince's office said.
Blair, who is expected to arrive in Pakistan on Saturday, also had urged Musharraf to prevent Hussain's execution.
Incident at age 18
Hussain was 18 in 1988 when he traveled to his ancestral home of Pakistan for the first time to visit relatives in the Punjabi town of Chakwal.
The day he arrived, Hussain got into Khan's taxi. Hussain alleged that the driver pulled out a gun and tried to sexually assault him. During a struggle, Khan was fatally shot. Hussain drove the cab and the body to a police station, where he was arrested.
Hussain was convicted and sentenced to death in 1989 for murder, then acquitted in 1996 by a higher court. However, an Islamic court overturned the acquittal and convicted him of armed robbery, sentencing him to death in 1998.
Last month, Musharraf granted Hussain a fourth stay of his execution to Dec. 31.
Khan's family denounced the decision to free Hussain.
"We have not forgiven him. We had rejected efforts by mediators. We had rejected offers of money and jobs," said Imran Khan, a 25-year-old cousin of the cabbie.