After eight years in jail on corruption charges, the husband of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has been released on bail, officials said, in a move the government called 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 corruption during Bhutto's two governments in the early 1990s; he was freed later in the day after a lawmaker from his wife's party paid the 1 million rupees (US$16,900) bail.
Zardari's lawyer Farooq Naek confirmed that guards had been removed from Zardari's room at a Karachi hospital where he had been receiving treatment in custody.
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.
Speaking to reporters at his Karachi home after his release, Zardari said he was eager to unite political parties in Pakistan against the current president, General Pervez Musharraf.
"I believe the political forces can struggle together for the restoration of democracy," he said. He called for elections next year, saying, "The time is right for Musharraf to go."
Bhutto, who has lived in exile in London and Dubai since fleeing Pakistan in April 1999 to avoid arrest in her own corruption cases, expressed hope she could be reunited with her husband outside Pakistan and that both could eventually return home.
"His release will definitely have an impact," Bhutto told the private Geo television network 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," she said, without elaborating.
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.
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 to 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.