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Pakistan Supreme Court Frees Jailed Opposition Leader, Increases Pressure on Musharraf

  • Benjamin Sand

Pakistan's Supreme Court has ordered the release of a leading opposition politician, who was jailed four years ago after criticizing the country's powerful military. VOA's Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad that the decision is another major setback for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf as national elections approach.

The outspoken government critic, Javed Hashmi, was charged with treason in 2003 and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

His crime: an anonymously distributed letter denouncing the Pakistani army.

Hashmi remains a leading member of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party.

Friday, party chairman Raja Muhammad Zafar-ul-Haq hailed the court's decision.

Above all else, he says, the decision will help re-energize the country's pro-democracy forces.

President Musharraf ousted Mr. Sharif in a 1999 military coup. Eight years later, the president is himself struggling to stay in power.

Religious extremists have unleashed a wave of deadly attacks after government commandos raided a radical mosque in the capital. Suicide bombers have killed more than 200 people since the raid, and al-Qaida-linked militants are vowing to overthrow the government.

Moderate forces are also demanding an end to President Musharraf's military-backed rule. In March the president suspended the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The controversial move triggered massive protests throughout the country.

On July 20, the Supreme Court dismissed the government's case against Chaudhry and reinstated the defiant judge. This was the first time a civilian had successfully challenged Mr. Musharraf, who retains the rank of general.

It was the just-reinstated Chief Justice Chaudhry who announced Friday's decision that freed Javed Hashmi, one of the general's leading political opponents.

The setbacks have led many analysts here in Pakistan to say a surrender by the president is looking increasingly likely.

Retired General and political commentator Talat Masood says time is running out.

"President Musharraf's power has weakened to a point where it might become untenable for him to hold on for too long," he said.

According to a new poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, the president's popular support is plummeting, down more than 20 points since February.

Nevertheless, Mr. Musharraf says he still wants to serve another five-year term as president.

He has even reached out to former political enemies ahead of national elections expected later this year.

He held secret talks with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in Abu Dhabi last week, reportedly to discuss a possible power-sharing agreement. Ms. Bhutto said yesterday that she was planning to return to Pakistan this year to prepare for the anticipated elections.

But analysts say any deal that leaves Mr. Musharraf in power could still face a Supreme Court challenge. After Friday's ruling, it appears the odds there are decidedly not in the president's favor.

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