Pakistan orders release of pro-Taliban militant leader

April 21, 2008 8:47:16 AM PDT
Pakistan on Monday released a pro-Taliban leader who sent thousands of fighters against the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, officials said, in what appeared to be part of efforts to broker peace with Islamic militants. There was no immediate comment from the government on the freeing of Sufi Muhammad, who is the father-in-law of the current militant leader in Pakistan's Swat Valley.

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."

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 - or 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, Maulana 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 including 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.

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 valley was peaceful, but that 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.

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 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 that he might run for a parliament seat in June. Zardari has said he has a degree, but its nature is uncertain and even his party had acknowledged it was not sure if Zardari would qualify under Pakistani 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 terror.

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


Associated Press Writer Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad, Pakistan contributed to this report.