Pakistan Releases Over 3,000 Prisoners Detained During Emergency Rule

Pakistan's Interior Ministry says about 3,400 hundred prisoners detained since emergency rule was decreed on November 3 have since been released. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad, however, that officials say 2,000 more people remain in detention, and scores of journalists were arrested shortly after the numbers were announced.

In announcing the status of the approximately 5,400 people detained since the emergency decree, Pakistan's Interior Ministry was giving the highest official estimate of arrests yet.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javid Iqbal Cheema said 3,416 detainees have been released. He did not say whether those freed included any of the high-profile critics considered to be leaders of opposition groups. Cheema also said he did not know when the remaining 2,000 detainees would be freed.

"These are preventative detentions that have been made to prevent any law-and-order situations in the country," he said. " And when the provincial governments feel they pose no threat to law and order, they may be released."

Currently in Pakistan, public gatherings of more than four people are treated as public disturbances that can threaten law and order.

Not long after Cheema spoke, police in Karachi clashed with groups of protesting journalists, and scores of them were arrested.

President Pervez Musharraf has defended the imposition of emergency rule as necessary to stabilize the country in the face of attacks by religious militants. But his government has mainly arrested lawyers, civil servants and political opposition leaders since the decree.

During the same period, pro-Taliban militants have taken over police stations and government buildings in the Swat Valley, a scenic tourist enclave several hours drive from Islamabad that has long been under central government control.

Interior Ministry spokesman Cheema says he expects the valley will be stable enough to participate in January parliamentary elections.

"What I'm told is that in three to four weeks' time we will be able to bring normalcy to Swat," he said.

The election commission on Tuesday formally announced that elections will be held on January 8. Opposition leaders have said they may boycott the polls unless the government lifts emergency rule and reinstates Supreme Court justices who were fired by General Musharraf.

Meanwhile, the president traveled to Saudi Arabia Tuesday for two days of talks with top officials there. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia, has denied reports that he plans to speak with General Musharraf during the visit.