The husband of a former Pakistani prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari, accused the country's government of running scared yesterday after he was rearrested only a month after his release on bail raised hopes of reconciliation with the President, Pervez Musharraf.
Mr Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto, was seized by police after arriving in Islamabad, the capital, prompting violent clashes with opposition supporters who had gathered in large numbers to welcome him.
"The rulers are afraid of me ... We have the support of the masses," said Mr Zardari, as he was taken away. "I had spoken of compromise after coming out of jail but I was arrested. I will be free again and will continue my efforts for democracy."
The arrest dimmed hopes of a detente between the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Ms Bhutto's party, and General Musharraf, the country's army chief and a key ally of Washington in its war on terror. It also appeared to undermine suggestions that Mr Zardari had made a deal with General Musharraf that would see a liberal party, such as the PPP, become a partner in a future government.
The interior ministry denied any political motivation for the arrest and blamed Mr Zardari for missing a bail hearing in a case in which he is accused of involvement in the murder of a High Court judge and his son in Karachi in 1996.
The former cabinet minister, who enjoys widespread popularity despite his imprisonment and a barrage of corruption charges, said he was being victimised. He said that until yesterday no hearing in the murder case had been called for more than four years. Mr Zardari has emerged as a prominent opposition figure since his release from prison on 22 November, widely seen as the result of deal with the government.
The rearrest is the latest episode in the tumultuous political career of a man who shot to prominence when he unexpectedly married the Oxford-educated Ms Bhutto 16 years ago. Eight years later he found himself in prison on charges ranging from conspiracy to murder Ms Bhutto's younger brother, Mir Murtaza, to the illegal importation of a BMW.
He was granted bail on all charges except those related to the luxury car and it was a decision by the Supreme Court in the case last month that made him a free man for the first time in eight years. His supporters claim all the charges are politically motivated.
Ms Bhutto lives in a self-imposed exile, moving between Dubai and a number of homes in Western countries, as she tries to avoid arrest on the same corruption charges as her husband.
Western governments have been watching for any signs that General Musharraf would distance himself from the Islamist coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, whose leaders include Taliban sympathisers. The US State Department voiced no objections to General Musharraf's decision to renege on an agreement to abandon his dual role as President and army chief before the end of the year. A US official said Washington wanted democracy in Pakistan but was reluctant to do anything to destabilise General Musharraf or undermine his support for the war on terror.
Analysts said Mr Zardari's release appeared a short-term ploy by General Musharraf to mute criticism of his plan to remain army chief. But Mr Zardari is likely to have angered the President by calling for a general elections 2005.
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