ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Friday ordered the release on bail of a senior opposition leader who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for trying to incite an army mutiny, a defense lawyer and officials said.
The decision to free Javed Hashmi, a close ally of exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will bolster political opposition to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who plans to seek a new presidential term from lawmakers this fall.
The military leader has been weakened by his failed attempt to oust the country’s chief justice. He also faces a tide of Islamic militant violence and U.S. demands for tougher action against al-Qaida.
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.
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.
It also called for a parliamentary debate to examine Musharraf’s October 1999 coup, and demanded an investigation into the Kargil operation earlier that year, 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.
The government at the time accused Hashmi of using a forged letter.
He 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.
“The court allowed bail for him,” said Akram Sheikh, Hashmi’s lawyer.
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.
Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed welcomed the order for Hashmi’s release, but said it did not mean Sharif could come back.
“I am happy to hear of his release and it’s good to see that Pakistani politics is now headed in the right direction,” Ahmed told ARY TV.
He said Sharif’s return “is a different issue. His cases are different and he cannot return for another three years at least.”
Sharif, who went into exile under a reported deal with Musharraf to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years, made Hashmi the acting leader of his party. Sharif has denied making any deal.
Friday’s ruling comes at a time of political ferment in Pakistan, with speculation growing of a power-sharing deal between a weakened Musharraf and another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
It also underlines the pivotal role of the judiciary — perceived as having stood up to Musharraf by quashing the case against Chief Justice Chaudhry. The judge was widely viewed as an independent-minded and critics say Musharraf had wanted to sideline him in case of legal challenges to his re-election plans.
The judge became the focus of the most powerful pro-democracy movement since the general took power, with rallies around the country that drew thousands of supporters.
Musharraf has since accepted Chaudhry’s reinstatement.