Pakistan's president spares death row Briton

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A Briton on death row in Pakistan for 18 years for allegedly murdering a taxi driver had his sentence commuted today.

President Pervez Musharraf ordered that Mirza Hussain be spared the death penalty, government officials said.

Hussain will instead be given a life sentence and may be eligible for release on parole because he is deemed to have served his punishment.

The decision came just weeks after the Prince of Wales raised the Briton's plight with the president during a visit to Pakistan.

Several human right organisations have appealed to Mr Musharraf to pardon Hussain, 36.

Hussain was convicted of murdering taxi driver Jamshed Khan in 1988 and has been in a prison near the capital Islamabad since then.

He was to be hanged after December 31 when a stay of execution granted by the president ended.

The former Territorial Army soldier was just 18 when he left West Yorkshire to visit relatives in Pakistan.

Three days after flying out from Heathrow, Hussain took a train from his aunt's home in Karachi to Rawalpindi, where he took a taxi for the journey to his family in the village of Bhubar.

Later that night Hussain led police to the body of the driver, who had been shot dead. He told them that the driver had tried to sexually assault him and pulled a gun, and that during a struggle the weapon went off and killed the driver.

He was convicted of murder but that was quashed by the High Court in Pakistan. But he was then retried under religious laws in an Islamic court and sentenced to death.

The execution has been postponed several times - most recently from November 1 until New Year's Eve.

Last month Hussain's family said they hoped his suffering could finally be brought to a close.

His brother Amjad said the case was a "serious miscarriage of justice" and that his brother has endured a "nightmare".

The issue of securing Hussain's release was highly sensitive as critics have branded Mr Musharraf a Western puppet.

The president has never commuted a death penalty decision made at the Sharia court before.

In government circles over the past few weeks, the focus was said to be on trying to find a legal way for Mr Musharraf to grant clemency.

MEP Edward McMillan-Scott, who has campaigned for Hussain's release, said he was "delighted" by the news.

He said he had spoken to President Musharraf in Brussels last month and the Pakistani leader had made a number of "private assurances" to him then.

Mr McMillan-Scott, who represents Yorkshire and the Humber, said he planned to travel to Pakistan on December 15 to try to ensure Hussain was home for Christmas.

He said: "I am delighted with the news. It reflects promises made by Musharraf to myself during his visit to Brussels last month.

"I have been working with the family to secure Hussain's release and was planning a last minute plea next month which will now become a plea for his return to Leeds for Christmas."

The chairman of the European Parliament's Friends of Pakistan Group Sajjad Karim, who led a delegation of MEPs to lobby President Musharraf earlier this year, said he was hopeful the Briton would be home soon.

According to a Pakistani senator who has taken an interest in the case, a life sentence in the country generally results in around 14 years in jail, with time off for good behaviour, the MEP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Mirza Hussain has done in excess of 18 years in custody," said Mr Karim. "Therefore the next step we will be pushing for is an immediate release.

"Hopefully, Mirza will be returning back home to Leeds very, very soon."

Catherine Wolthuizen, chief executive of Fair Trials Abroad, said her organisation was "delighted" with the development announced by Pakistan officials.

She said: "We are delighted to hear that his death sentence has been reportedly commuted to life.

"He's already served the equivalent of at least one or two life sentences and I very much hope this could see him returned home very soon.

"He was the victim of a grave miscarriage of justice which has been recognised by the Pakistan government."

Ms Wolthuizen said her organisation had been working closely with Hussain's family and campaigning with other bodies to secure his release.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the British Government had not been officially notified of the decision but was encouraged by the reports.

He said: "We welcome reports from the government of Pakistan that Mr Hussain's sentence has been commuted to life on humanitarian grounds.

"We have not yet been officially notified of the decision."

Mr Hussain's MP Greg Mulholland said the family were still waiting for official confirmation.

Mr Mulholland, Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, said: "We have had no official confirmation. It sounds very positive indeed but until we get official confirmation, we cannot start celebrating yet.

"We would have expected the family to have been informed about any development in the case. Clearly this has been leaked in Pakistan and has now been picked up by the media, but it has not been officially confirmed yet."

Mr Mulholland said he had spoken to the family, adding: "Clearly it seems a very positive development but they are waiting official confirmation.

"It is important that he is released and the death sentence is not just commuted to a life sentence. We have been campaigning for him to come back home and that remains our position."

The MP said he and the family would be making efforts to contact officials in Pakistan and in London to confirm the news.