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Pakistan starts to free prisoners

By Omar Waraich in Islamabad

After weeks of intense international and domestic pressure, the Pakistan government announced the release of 3,400 lawyers and opposition activists yesterday.

The announcement came as the country's Election Commission finalised 8 th January 2008 as the date for parliamentary elections. General Pervez Musharraf has suggested that emergency rule will remain in force through the election period, leading Washington and his political opponents to argue that they cannot be free or fair.

Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, signalled that the government had begun to step back from some of the severe measures it resorted to with the imposition of a state of emergency on 3 Nov. "The process has started," he said, adding that more "would be freed soon".

But Mr Cheema went on to warn that, "While peaceful protests are a part of democratic process, the federal and provincial governments shall not brook any attempt to create disturbances in the run-up to elections."

Among those released yesterday was Abrar Hasan, president of Sindh High Court Bar Association. "I was arrested the day after the emergency was declared," said Mr Hasan. "We, the lawyers in Karachi, were voicing our sentiments in favour of an independent judiciary. Before they could get me, they raided my home and arrested my son-in-law... I was taken to Karachi central jail and held in dreadful circumstances before being moved."

Mr Hasan said that he and the lawyers he leads in Karachi will maintain their demands for the reinstatement of the judges sacked. "Naturally, we will continue to apply pressure through peaceful protests."

Lawyers, opposition parties and human rights groups dismissed the government's claims and said that numbers of those released had been exaggerated while further arrests were being made.

Athar Minallah, a senior lawyer said: "I know that in the case of 45 lawyers who were released on bail, the Punjab government has issued fresh detention orders for 20 of them." Mr Minallah added that the leaders of the lawyers' movement remained behind bars with some yet to be heard from.

A spokesman for Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, the largest opposition party, denounced the government's claims as "absolutely rubbish".

"The People's Party activists arrested are 17,000 in totality," said Farhatullah Babar. "Only 36 have been released in Karachi and Sindh. Kashmiri activists, who were arrested in Rawalpindi the day of the planned rally, have been taken to far away prisons in southern Punjab. And there were seven PPP activists among the journalists arrested in Karachi today."

176 journalists were reportedly arrested in Karachi after police broke up a demonstration in support of press freedom and against the complete closure of Geo News and ARY OneWorld, Pakistan's most popular independent news channels.

"While the government was claiming that it had released people, a huge number of journalists were being arrested here in Karachi," Iqbal Haider, secretary general of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, said after visiting the journalists in prison. "They were gathered peacefully outside the Karachi press club. The police came at them with baton-charges and tear-gas. Scores were beaten ruthlessly, including female journalists."

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