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Pakistan frees pro-Taliban leader

Pakistan on Monday released a pro-Taliban leader who sent thousands of fighters against the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, officials said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A pro-Taliban leader who sent thousands of fighters against the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was freed by Pakistan on Monday, and an official said his militant group signed a peace deal with the provincial government in the restive northwest.

The group founded by radical cleric Sufi Muhammad renounced attacks on government forces in the six-point accord but it will be allowed to peacefully campaign for the implementation of Islamic law in Pakistan, provincial government spokesman Faridullah Khan said.

He said the pact was signed by Muhammad’s deputy and eight other clerics and four officials, including three provincial government ministers.

It was not immediately clear if Muhammad’s son-in-law, cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who led a militant takeover in the northwestern Swat Valley last year, agreed to lay down arms as part of the pact.

Muhammad was jailed in 2002 and was shifted to a hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar five months ago because of poor health.

Ajmal Khan, the deputy superintendent of Peshawar’s main jail, said the government on Monday “issued an order for the release of Sufi Mohammad, and I have conveyed this order to him.”

Police escort from hospital
Shortly after, Muhammad left the hospital in a vehicle under police escort, accompanied by followers wearing black turbans, said Zafar Khan, a paramedic at the hospital.

Muhammad founded the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed — Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law — which sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan against the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.

Supporters of his son-in-law, Fazlullah, took control of much of the Swat Valley last year until Pakistan’s army won it back in a bloody military operation.

The group wants a Taliban-like system in Pakistan, including compulsory beards for men, mandatory veils for women and the outlawing of light entertainment such as music and television.

President Pervez Musharraf outlawed the group in early 2002, and Muhammad was arrested when he returned to Pakistan after fighting in Afghanistan. He was sentenced in November 2002 to three years in prison on a weapons charge but had remained in custody.

An army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said the military was not involved in the government’s decision to release Muhammad.

He said 90 percent of the Swat Valley was peaceful, but the army was still conducting occasional search operations against militant holdouts and had recently set up a checkpoint at Fazlullah’s former headquarters to stop followers from slipping back in the area. No decision has been made to withdraw the army, Abbas said.

Judicial ruling undermines Musharraf
Also Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring candidates for parliament to have bachelor’s degrees, clearing the way for the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to run for a seat and possibly become prime minister.

The ruling was another sign of Musharraf’s dwindling influence. He introduced the degree requirement in 2002, supposedly to improve the caliber of lawmakers.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar said the provision was “declared to be void” after a seven-judge panel heard arguments that it discriminated against a large portion of the Pakistani population.

Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who took over her party’s leadership after her December assassination, has indicated he might run for a parliament seat in June. Zardari has said he has a degree, but its nature is uncertain and his party acknowledged it was not sure if Zardari would qualify under the voided law.

Zardari has not ruled out becoming prime minister at some point.

Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party is now leading a coalition government packed with Musharraf foes after routing loyalists of the U.S.-backed president in Feb. 18 elections. Musharraf’s popularity has plunged in the last year, especially due to anger over his alliance with the U.S. in the war on extremist groups.

The degree requirement was challenged by Nasir Mahmood, a politician from a hard-line Islamic party who plans to contest a parliament seat in a by-election, said his lawyer, Sen. Kamran Murtaza.