THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Pakistan reportedly frees terror suspects

Action seen as way to mask secret jails

Folk dancers performed during an election rally yesterday for former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Vehari. Pakistan's Election Commission has upheld an election ban on Sharif. Folk dancers performed during an election rally yesterday for former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Vehari. Pakistan's Election Commission has upheld an election ban on Sharif. (asim tanveer/reuters)
Email|Print| Text size + By Carlotta Gall
New York Times News Service / December 19, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies, apparently trying to avoid acknowledging a secret detention system, have quietly set free nearly 100 men suspected of links to terrorism, few of whom were charged, human rights groups and lawyers here say.

Those released, they say, are some of the nearly 500 Pakistanis presumed to have disappeared into the hands of the Pakistani intelligence agencies cooperating with Washington's fight against terrorism since 2001.

No official reason has been given for the releases, but as pressure has mounted to bring the cases into the courts, the government has decided to jettison some suspects and spare itself the embarrassment of having to reveal that people have been held on flimsy evidence in the secret system, its opponents say.

Interviews with lawyers and human rights officials here and a review of court records by The New York Times show how scraps of information have accumulated over recent months into a body of evidence of the detention system.

In one case, a suspect tied to the 2002 killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, but not charged, was dumped on a garbage heap, so thin and ill that he died 20 days later. He was arrested in South Africa several years ago.

In at least two other instances, detainees were handed over to the United States without extradition proceedings, Pakistani lawyers and human rights groups say.

"They are releasing them because these cases are being made public," said Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a lawyer who has taken up many cases of the missing. "They want to avoid the publicity."

In addition, human rights groups and lawyers here contend, the government has swept up at least 4,000 other Pakistanis, most Baluchi and Sindhi nationalists who have nothing to do with the US campaign against terrorism.

Human rights groups describe the disappearances as one of the grimmest aspects of Pervez Musharraf's presidency.

Also yesterday, Pakistan's Election Commission said Nawaz Sharif cannot run in parliamentary elections next month, eliminating the former prime minister's chances of returning to office.

The decision denies Sharif a platform in Parliament to campaign against Musharraf, who ousted him in a 1999 coup. The commission, which was appointed by Musharraf, had not been expected to overturn the original decision by a local official to disqualify Sharif based on his alleged involvement in a corruption case, according to the Associated Press.

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