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Pakistan frees thousands of political opponents

More than 3,000 people jailed in Pakistan under emergency rule have been released, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday, the latest sign President Musharraf was rolling back some of his harsher measures.
/ Source: The Associated Press

More than 3,000 people jailed in Pakistan under emergency rule have been released in recent days, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday, the latest sign that embattled President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was rolling back some of the harsher measures he has taken against his opponents.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema put the exact figure of those freed in recent days at 3,416 -- including lawyers and political activists -- and said more than 2,000 people remained jailed.

"The process has started. More are being released today," Cheema said of the releases. He said those still in detention "would be freed soon," though he said the cases of some facing criminal charges could take longer.

Musharraf, who left for a visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, has been rolling back some of his most unpopular steps over the past several days. He has been under immense pressure from Washington to free opposition leaders, end media restrictions and step down as head of the armed forces.

Officials in the Saudi kingdom, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, said authorities were also trying to arrange a visit between Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif — the prime minister whom Musharraf toppled in 1999.

Sharif was sent back to Saudi Arabia last month when he tried to return home from exile, even though the Supreme Court ruled he could not be kept out.

Sharif told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper no meeting was planned, and an official in Musharraf’s office said the Pakistani leader had no plans to meet him. However, the official said Saudi leaders wanted Musharraf to let Sharif return and have a fair chance in the elections.

The offical, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters on the record, said the general went to the kingdom because he wanted to persuade a key ally that Sharif could not come back now because it would deepen political turmoil and threaten Pakistan’s stability.

The official said Musharraf has privately told aides that he would be prepared to let Sharif return after the election, provided he tones down his rhetoric.

Pakistan still jailing some opponents
The releases came hours after judges hand-picked by Musharraf quashed legal challenges to his disputed re-election as president. Still, many high-ranking party activists and leaders, such as former cricket star Imran Khan, remained in prison. Khan began a hunger strike Monday to protest emergency rule.

And while some people were being showed out of detention facilities, others were being led in.

In the southern city of Karachi, police detained about 150 journalists Tuesday after clashing with them during a protest against Pakistan's state of emergency, witnesses said. Two reporters were seen bleeding from head injuries.

Police also detained 23 journalists after they tried to hold a rally in the southern city of Hyderabad to protest press restrictions, said Ali Hassan, a local journalist who was present at the rally.

Meanwhile, several leaders of Pakistan's lawyers' associations, which have been at the forefront of protests against Musharraf for months, vowed on their release from jail that they would continue their campaign against the emergency and for the restoration of ousted judges.

"We are chalking out strategy for the next phase ... The lawyers community will not give up," said Hafiz Lakho, a senior lawyer in Karachi.

In the southern province of Sindh, authorities released 300 people, including lawyers, human rights activists and supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, one of Musharraf's chief rivals. Bhutto herself was released from a second stint under house arrest late last week, as was a prominent human rights activist, Asma Jehangir.

"All the political workers and lawyers who were detained ... are being released," a senior provincial official, Ghulam Mohammed Mohtarem, said of the Sindh releases. "We had instructions from the chief minister to release these people."

He added that others -- he wouldn't say how many -- remain in jail in the province, including 11 people charged with sedition since emergency rule was imposed on Nov. 3.

In neighboring Baluchistan, 49 lawyers and six political activists were set free, said Rehmatullah Niazi, a senior police officer in Quetta, the provincial capital. Three other lawyers remain in custody.

Emergency rule criticized
Musharraf says the emergency is needed to combat increasingly powerful Islamic militants, but opponents note most of those jailed have been moderates. They say the general suspended the constitution solely to preserve his grip on power by preventing the then-Supreme Court from invalidating his recent re-election as president.

When the reconstituted Supreme Court threw out legal challenges to Musharraf's re-election Monday, critics denounced the decision as illegitimate and insisted that Musharraf relinquish power to end the country's political turmoil.

However, the ruling did pave the way for Musharraf to fulfill a promise to quit as army chief and rule as a civilian president, perhaps by the end of the month, and some opposition leaders and analysts said the ruling could prompt the government to ease the emergency.

"The whole country was subject to martial law only to get this decision," said Ahsan Iqbal, leader of one of Pakistan's two main opposition parties. "Now he has got his decision at gunpoint" and may soon make concessions, Iqbal said.

Musharraf arrived in the Saudi capital of Riaydh on Tuesday for talks with King Abdullah about the political crisis, the presidency said.

Bush administration pressures Musharraf
The Bush administration has put intense pressure on Musharraf to lift emergency rule as swiftly as possible, saying that the elections cannot be fair unless Musharraf frees opponents, lifts media curbs and lets candidates campaign freely.

It also has urged opposition parties to restart a dialogue of reconciliation with the government that last month yielded an amnesty for Bhutto from corruption charges, allowing her to return from exile.

Bhutto, a former prime minister who also favors ties with the U.S., said Monday that she had no plans to revive power-sharing negotiations with Musharraf. The talks broke down after police put her under house arrest to stop her from leading rallies against the general's suspension of the constitution.

Bhutto was huddled with other leaders of her party on Tuesday to discuss whether it could take part in polls if the emergency is not lifted, her spokeswoman Sherry Rehman said.