- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

SIHALA, Pakistan The leader of a banned Muslim extremist group blamed in the deaths of hundreds of people was released yesterday by Pakistani authorities, who said they have no evidence to continue holding him.

Maulana Azam Tariq, whose pro-Taliban group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, had been detained for 13 months without being formally charged.

A Lahore appeals court ruled on Monday that the government would have to release him if it could not produce evidence against him.

"We do not have any case against him, and we have set him free as directed by the Lahore High Court," said government official Irfan Ali.

Mr. Tariq, who ran for office from prison and won a National Assembly seat in the Oct. 10 elections, called his release "a victory for justice."

"I have been freed on the orders of the Lahore High Court, and I salute the judges for doing justice. I am again a free man after 13 months, and our mission will continue," Mr. Tariq told reporters at the government guesthouse where he had been held in Sihala, 20 miles east of the capital, Islamabad.

Mr. Tariq was greeted with hugs, kisses and handshakes by supporters at the gates of the guesthouse. At least three of his men carried rifles as they drove him away moments later.

Christian and Shi'ite Muslim groups expressed alarm at his release.

"We are shocked to know that the government has released Azam Tariq. His organization is involved in many acts of terrorism," said Shahbaz Bhatti, who heads the advocacy group All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance.

Sipah-e-Sahaba, or the Guardians of the Friends of the Prophet, was one of five militant groups outlawed in January by President Pervez Musharraf as he sought to purge the country of religious extremism and terrorism.

Considered the most violent Sunni Muslim group, Sipah-e-Sahaba has been blamed by police for more than 400 killings in sectarian violence in the past year.

Most of the victims have been Shi'ite Muslims, but attacks on Christians and Western interests have increased since Gen. Musharraf joined the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

"Minority Christians feel insecure and threatened after the release of Tariq," Mr. Bhatti said.

A Shi'ite leader, Hassan Turabi, warned that Mr. Tariq's release means "peace in Pakistan is in danger."

The group also has strong ties to Afghanistan's former Taliban leaders.

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