Cricket star among 5,634 freed in Pakistan

Image: Imran Khan
Students follow cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, left, during a demonstration earlier this month.Rahat Dar / EPA file
/ Source: news services

The Pakistani government has freed more than 5,000 lawyers and political activists jailed under emergency rule, an official said on Wednesday. Among those released was cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

Law Minister Afzal Hayder said 5,634 people had been freed.

"Now 623 people are in the government's custody" and authorities had been ordered to release them, he said on state television.

The news comes a day after the Interior Ministry announced more than 3,000 people had been released in recent days, the latest sign that embattled President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was rolling back some of the harsher measures he has taken against his opponents.

Also Wednesday, a senior official said Musharraf by Saturday.

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.

Khan, a former cricket star, was one of many high-ranking party activists and leaders taken into prison. He was arrested last week after trying to start a student uprising against Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule. On Monday, he began a hunger strike.

"Our party workers in (the eastern city of) D.G. Khan told me that he has come out of jail," Khan's spokesman Hafeezullah Khan Niazi told Reuters.

Mohammed Bakhsh, a senior official at the Dera Ghazi Khan jail where Khan had been held, told AP that friends had picked Khan up outside the prison and driven him away.

"We're all very relieved, especially since this means he can now end his hunger strike," his ex-wife, Jemima Khan, told AP in London. "He's keen to make the point that although he's free, there are many more innocent people who are still in jail ... he'll now be able to protest more actively again."

Protests still threatened to break out in Pakistan on Wednesday. Dozens of policemen swung batons and fired tear gas to prevent journalists from rallying in the eastern city of Faisalabad against curbs on the media. Police were also in action in the southwestern city of Quetta, where 25 journalists were detained after a street rally during which they chanted "Musharraf, we do not accept your laws," and "Long live the freedom of journalism."