Hardline cleric put under house arrest by Musharraf

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The Independent Online

Another fiery Pakistani fundamentalist leader has been placed under house arrest and charged with sedition, as Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, presses on with his tough campaign to keep his overwhelmingly Muslim nation behind the West's campaign in Afghanistan.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, the largest hardline religious party in Pakistan, was arrested on Saturday in the town of Mardan, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), according to Liaqat Ali Khan, Mardan's Superintendent of Police. Mr Khan said: "He has been booked on sedition charges for speaking against the government."

At a rally in Mardan on Friday, after prayers in the mosque, the white-bearded cleric urged the Pakistani army to remove General Musharraf if he did not withdraw his support for the allied attacks.

Thousands of pro-Taliban Pakistanis in the region are said by religious hardliners to have armed themselves with weapons, ranging from rocket launchers to swords, and set off across the porous, unmarked border of NWFP to wage war alongside the Taliban. Most of them are ethnic Pashtuns, the same as the Taliban leadership. Pashtuns constitute about 45 per cent of the population of Afghanistan and roughly 20 per cent of Pakistan.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad was unrepentant yesterday. "I consider this government ... unconstitutional and illegal," he said. "Innocent Afghans are the target of state terrorism ... and, unfortunately, our government is [supporting] the aggressor." If the cleric is convicted of sedition, he could possibly face a life sentence.

The arrest and prosecution of Mr Ahmed, at least the fourth dissenting voice to have been detained since October, is consistent with the hard line Pakistan's military ruler has pursued with Islamist dissenters ever since declaring his support for the United States. Under Draconian rules already in place, protest rallies were banned, but General Musharraf allowed them to take place. However, after a riot in the Pashtun-dominated city of Quetta, Baluchistan he has clamped down on the protests.

So far, the pre-emptive policy appears to be working. Despite many dire predictions, even the biggest rallies have been modest compared with those that erupted during the Gulf War. The areas worst affected, including NWFP and Baluchistan, are traditionally volatile, while the political heartland of the country, Punjab, has remained mostly calm.

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