Bail granted to Pakistani cleric held in '07 mosque siege

By Zarar Khan
Associated Press / April 16, 2009
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The nation's Supreme Court ordered the release on bail yesterday of a hard-line cleric who was detained as soldiers stormed his radical Red Mosque in 2007, killing scores of people and energizing the country's Islamist insurgency.

Maulana Abdul Aziz was arrested as he tried to sneak out of the besieged mosque in the capital, Islamabad, dressed in an all-covering burqa worn by some Muslim women.

Security forces stormed the mosque days later after scores of heavily armed militants inside refused to surrender. The government says 102 people, including 11 security personnel, were killed in the standoff.

The siege triggered an increase in suicide bombings and other attacks on the government and security forces. The attacks have continued since then, alarming Pakistan's Western allies, who are concerned about the stability of the nuclear-armed state.

Yesterday a suicide car bomber attacked a police checkpoint, killing six officers and five civilians. Ten others were wounded, some of them critically, said Malik Naveed Khan, provincial police chief. The attack occurred close to Peshawar in the northwest, which borders Afghanistan and is a stronghold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Aziz, who has not yet been released, was granted bail yesterday while the court considers the charges against him in relation to the siege, his lawyer, Shaukat Siddiqui, told reporters outside the court. Prosecutors were not available for comment.

Aziz is facing several charges ranging from abetting terrorists to illegally occupying a building.

Pakistan has a history of failing to successfully prosecute militants, many of whom are believed to have had links with the country's armed forces.

The government stirred fresh international alarm Tuesday when it accepted Islamic law in a large part of North-West Frontier Province to quell the Taliban insurgency there.

Eighteen months of bloodshed in part of the region, the Swat Valley, prompted the provincial government in February to agree to impose Islamic law to achieve peace. The Taliban agreed to a cease-fire.

After weeks of delay, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, approved the regulation following a unanimous vote in Parliament urging him to sign it.

The deal covers the Malakand division, a largely conservative region along the Afghan border. The Swat Valley is less than 100 miles from Islamabad and is believed to be largely under Taliban control.

Defenders say the deal will drain public support for extremists who undermined longstanding calls in Swat for reform of Pakistan's snail-paced justice system.

But critics are concerned that it rewards hard-liners who have beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls in the name of Islam.

Western allies are particularly concerned that Swat will become a sanctuary for allies of the Al Qaeda terror network.