Thousands Of Pakistani Dissidents Freed

Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007.
AP Photo/B.K. Bangash
The government freed more jailed political activists Wednesday and a senior official said President Gen. Pervez Musharraf might step down as army chief this weekend, moves that could blunt opposition threats to boycott parliamentary elections.

It remained unclear, however, when Musharraf might lift a state of emergency that has worsened Pakistan's political turmoil just as the government confronts rising Islamic militancy.

The United States and other Western nations are pressuring him to end emergency rule if he hopes to repair his bruised credentials as a democrat and a reliable ally in the fight against international terrorism.

Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told The Associated Press that Musharraf would quickly fulfill his promise to quit his army post and be sworn in for a new five-year presidential term as a civilian.

"It may happen on Saturday ... I know the president, and he will honor his commitment," Qayyum said.

Meeting another key demand of domestic critics, Washington and the European Union, authorities said they have now freed most of the thousands of activists rounded up since Musharraf suspended the constitution and decreed emergency powers Nov. 3.

Law Minister Afzal Hayder announced on state television that the government had released 5,634 lawyers and political party members. He said 623 people remained in custody, but that they would be let go soon.

But CBS News sources say that thousands, not hundreds, are still under arrest, and more lawyers, journalists and human rights workers are being detained daily, reports CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar.

The President of Supreme Court Bar Association, lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, is still missing. He was arrested by police as he spoke at a press conference.

"The police came in and they said, 'Sorry it's over, we have to pick you up,'" said Ashan's wife, Bushra.

"There is no democracy in the country and President Bush knows it better than we do," she added

Those freed included Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has become a firebrand in the opposition to Musharraf's rule. Khan said he would continue a hunger strike begun in custody and boycott the election in hopes of forcing Musharraf to give up all power."

"Musharraf is staging a drama to deceive America and the West whom he scared that without him the nuclear bomb will get into extremist hands," Khan told reporters.

Some people have voiced concerns that the crisis could undermine the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, but the top U.S. military officer said this week that there were no signs of that.

Also freed was Javed Hashmi, acting president of the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf's most dogged foe. In a phone interview with the AP, Hashmi called for opposition parties to boycott the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections to avoid giving credibility to Musharraf.

(AP Photo/Shakil Adil)
Khan has a high profile but limited political clout, and Musharraf's focus is on preventing Sharif from teaming up with the other key opposition leader, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, seen at left. Their secular parties are the biggest blocs in the opposition.

Bhutto's party welcomed the releases of jailed activists but it charged that thousands more of its supporters were still in custody and said Musharraf could not be trusted.

Spokesman Farhatullah Babar said it was too soon for the party to express any opinion on the possibility Musharraf might give up his powerful post as chief of the army.

"President Musharraf has made such promises before the nation and the international community in the past as well, and we will comment when he actually steps down as the army chief," Babar said.