WASHINGTON, March 24: Chairman and three senior members of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations have urged President Pervez Musharraf to ensure that the coming elections are open and free and the exiled leaders of the PPP and the PML-N are allowed to participate.

In a letter to President Musharraf, released to the media on Saturday, the four senators remind him that no democratic government can be credible without the protective check of a free press and urge him to order Pakistan’s security and intelligence agencies to stop harassing journalists.

The senators -– Joseph R. Biden, John F. Kerry, Patrick J. Leahy and Blanch L. Lincoln -– describe the coming year as “a crucial one” for Pakistan’s democratic development and for its relationship with the United States.

“Handled properly on both sides, the relationship has the potential for significant and sustained improvement,” say the senators, adding: “We believe that the US and Pakistan can and should be firm allies in the decades to come.”

But they warn that if this relationship “is handled improperly, the strides made by both our countries in recent years could well be imperilled.”

The senators say that they wrote this letter as supporters of the US-Pakistan relationship, adding that they understand “the complicated political pressures” to which the Musharraf government is subject but “given the enormous stakes” the US has in developments in Pakistan, “we feel it is appropriate to raise with you several issues of concern.”

The top on their list is the issue of “open elections and open government”.

As Pakistan prepares for upcoming elections, “we urge you to ensure that the Pakistan people can benefit from a robust democratic campaign and engage in open and vigorous debate about their political future,” the senators say.

They recall that the 2002 elections met “widespread international scepticism”, in particular concerning “the extensive involvement of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in the electoral process and in daily governance”.

They say that since those elections, they have received increasingly frequent reports of abuses such as arbitrary arrest and detention, mistreatment in custody and repression of journalist and political figures critical of the government.

The senators remind President Musharraf that he has often spoken publicly about Pakistan’s need for a vigorous, moderate democracy.

“The single most concrete measure of progress would be to allow all legitimate parties and candidates to contest the elections, including the senior leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League.

“Unless the leaders of Pakistan’s two oldest and most firmly established parties are free to return from exile and campaign for office, it will be difficult for the international community to regard the 2007 elections as a true expression of democracy.”

They note that in recent months, there have been reports of abuse and harassment of journalists and NGO workers -– both Pakistani and foreign.

“We urge your office to issue explicit public instructions to all members of Pakistan’s security and intelligence community to cease harassing journalists and government critics -– and to punish any officials guilty of acts of abuse or harassment to the full extent of the law.”

The letter also notes continued Taliban and Al Qaeda activities in Afghanistan and quotes senior US and Nato officials as saying that “the Taliban leadership operates from headquarters in or near Quetta.”

The letter refers to the peace agreement between the government and tribal elders in Waziristan and complains that the agreement has led to “a campaign of violence” targeting anti-Taliban elements in the tribal region and also caused an increase in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

The senators argue that Pakistan’s plan to fence the Afghan border will jeopardise civilians on both sides, without meaningfully reducing Taliban activities.

They note that Afghanistan does not yet accept the Durand Line and opposes the fencing on the same grounds that Pakistan opposed India’s fencing of the Line of Control.

“We urge you instead to focus on disrupting the Taliban’s command and control network ... in particular, we urge your government to seek the arrest and detention of Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Sirajuddin Haqqani and other high-ranking Taliban believed to reside in Quetta, Peshawar and other areas in Pakistan.”

The letter also urges Pakistan to continue and increase efforts to stop militant groups from using Azad Kashmir as a staging ground for attacks inside the Indian occupied Kashmir.

“We understand that groups like the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jaish-i-Muhammad (often with only loosely changed names) continue to operate in Pakistan.”

The letter claims that Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Srinagar-based social service wing of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, has been publicly identified as a suspected key element in August’s foiled Heathrow Airport bombing plot.

The letter identifies Jaish-i-Muhammad as another key suspect in the same bombing plot and claims that leaders of the two groups continue to “enjoy safe haven on Pakistani soil”.

“We would be interested in discussing the most effective ways of combating not merely these groups themselves, but the climate of political alienation and economic stagnation that makes it easier for these extremist groups to recruit new members.”The senators conclude their letter with an assurance that they want the US to do “far more than we have done in the past to help Pakistanis build the sort of moderate, democratic, stable, economically-vigorous society that you and the vast mass of your fellow citizens so clearly desire.”

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