Mon, Aug 06, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Opposition leader granted bail from prison in Pakistan

CHEERING CROWD The release of Javed Hashmi, one of the most outspoken critics of President Pervez Musharraf, comes at a time of rising political discontent


One of Pakistan's most outspoken opposition leaders emerged from prison to a cheering crowd and vowed to press his campaign against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is already struggling with rising dissent and militant violence.

Attacks and clashes on Saturday killed 23 people in the northern tribal regions, where pro-Taliban militants have been waging a campaign against Musharraf's administration, a key US ally in the fight against terrorism.

The combination of militant violence and political demands for the restoration of democracy have embroiled Musharraf in the toughest period of his rule since he ousted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup eight years ago.

Almost certain to add to his troubles was the Saturday release of Javed Hashmi, the acting president of the exiled former prime minister's party.

The Supreme Court granted Hashmi bail on Friday after he served four years of a 23-year sentence on charges of treason and inciting an army mutiny against Musharraf. Hashmi will be free while the court considers whether it should review his case, which rights and opposition groups have criticized as politically motivated.

Hundreds of members of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N gathered outside the prison, some with drums and horns. As Hashmi emerged, they rushed forward, waving the green flags of Sharif's party and chanting: "Brave man, Hashmi, Hashmi!"

"My fight was for the restoration of democracy, and the true freedom for me will come the day when we will get rid of those generals who toppled the elected government," Hashmi said.

"There will be no compromise with the dictators," he said. "I will only consider myself a free man when the entire nation will get freedom from these generals."

One of the jurists who released Hashmi was Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom Musharraf tried and failed to unseat in what opponents called an attempt to remove a potentially powerful opponent who could have derailed the president's push for a new five-year term.

Draped in a flower garland, Hashmi climbed onto the front of a four-wheel-drive vehicle to lead a procession to a shrine through the streets of Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city and its cultural capital.

The Pakistan Muslim League-N is one of the main groups on Pakistan's fractured political scene, and Sharif remains its powerful figurehead. It had been in an anti-Musharraf alliance with party of another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, until last month, when speculation intensified about a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf.

Sharif appealed to the Supreme Court on Thursday to be allowed to return from exile to contest parliamentary elections later this year. Musharraf has said he would block any such attempt.

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