Pakistan Court Frees Controversial Leader

Female activists of Pakistan's multi-party opposition/Getty. i i

Female activists of Pakistan's multi-party opposition, hold placards during an anti-government demonstration in front of the parliament house in Islamabad in 2003. Activists were protesting against the arrest of their leader Javed Hashmi and demanded that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf be ousted. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Female activists of Pakistan's multi-party opposition/Getty.

Female activists of Pakistan's multi-party opposition, hold placards during an anti-government demonstration in front of the parliament house in Islamabad in 2003. Activists were protesting against the arrest of their leader Javed Hashmi and demanded that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf be ousted.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Javed Hashmi/AP.

Javed Hashmi waves to his supporters gathered at the district court in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2003. Pakistan's Supreme Court on Friday ordered the release of the senior opposition leader on bail who was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Tariq Aziz/AP Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Tariq Aziz/AP Photos
Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf/Getty.

Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Moore/Getty Images

Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the release of a senior opposition leader, who could bolster resistance against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he seeks reelection from lawmakers in the fall.

Javed Hashmi was ordered to be released Friday on bail from his 23 year prison sentence for trying to incite an army mutiny, said Akram Sheikh, Hashmi's lawyer.

Hashmi is a close ally of exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who went into exile under a reported deal with Musharraf to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years, making Hashmi the acting leader of his party. Sharif has denied making any deal.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was suspended by Musharraf in March but cleared of charges of misconduct last month, headed the three-judge panel that ordered Hashmi's release.

Musharraf has been weakened by his failed attempt to oust the country's chief justice. The military leader also faces a tide of Islamic militant violence and U.S. demands for tougher action against al-Qaida.

Hashmi, an arch-critic of the president, was convicted in 2004 on charges that rights and opposition groups alleged were politically motivated. He was sentenced in a Sessions Court to 23 years in prison for circulating a letter from some soldiers against Musharraf.

The letter, written on military stationery but unsigned, criticized Musharraf for making Pakistan a key ally of the United States in its war on terror in Afghanistan, and praised parliament for opposing a U.S. request for Pakistan to send troops to join coalition forces in Iraq.

The letter also called for a parliamentary debate to examine Musharraf's October 1999 coup. It also demanded an investigation into the Kargil operation also in 1999, when Pakistan and India fought a limited war in the high mountains of the disputed territory of Kashmir. Musharraf was then the military chief of staff.

Hashmi was arrested three days after displaying the letter at a news conference. He faced charges including forgery, inciting mutiny and sedition.

Hashmi's lawyers sought a review of the case from the Supreme Court, where Chaudhry and two other judges on Friday agreed to release him pending the review on bail of about $800.

Sheikh said he was trying to complete paperwork so that Hashmi could be released quickly from the Kotjakhpat Jail in Lahore where he is being held, though it appeared unlikely he would be freed before Saturday.

Mohammed Fayyaz, an official at the jail, said guards were ready to free Hashmi, though "some formalities are yet to be completed.

"There will be no hurdle from our side," Fayyaz said.

Raja Zafarul Haq, the chairman of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, welcomed the court ruling, which could further encourage Sharif - the elected leader ousted by Musharraf in the 1999 coup - to attempt a return to Pakistan from exile in Saudi Arabia.

Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, appealed Thursday to the Supreme Court to be allowed to return to contest parliamentary elections due later this year.

The court is yet to begin hearing the appeal, but Musharraf has said he would block attempts by the two brothers to return.

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