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(New York) -- Pervez Musharraf's four-year rule in Pakistan has led to serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch charged today in a letter to the Pakistani president. On the fourth anniversary of the military coup that brought General Musharraf to power, Human Rights Watch called on him to immediately return the country to constitutional rule.

Human Rights Watch pointed out in its letter that military agencies have frequently tortured and harassed political opponents, critical journalists, and former government officials. The past four years have also seen a rise in activity by extremist religious groups and an increase in sectarian killings in Pakistan, in part due to the Musharraf government's policy of marginalizing mainstream opposition political groups. Opposition legislators have told Human Rights Watch they have been beaten, harassed and subjected to blackmail for opposing Musharraf's policies.

"In Pakistan, the judiciary has been emasculated, political parties rendered powerless, and extremist and sectarian religious parties strengthened under Musharraf's rule," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "General Musharraf should transfer power to a legitimate government now."

Pakistan's parliamentary opposition has contested Musharraf's efforts to ensure that federal and provincial governments remain subordinate to the military. The Musharraf administration has sidelined the mainstream political opposition and negotiated only with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ama, an alliance of religious political parties that have historically enjoyed close links with the Pakistan military. However, even these negotiations broke down recently over General Musharraf's refusal to provide a date by which he would resign as army chief in exchange for being elected president of Pakistan in a civilian capacity.

The growing influence of extremist religious elements has impinged on the rights of women and religious minorities. Laws regarding rape and honor killings still discriminate against women. The number of blasphemy cases registered has risen while discrimination and persecution on grounds of religion persist. Adherents of the Shi'a branch of Islam have faced numerous violent attacks by Sunni Muslim militant groups.

Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about Pakistan's collaboration with the United States in the so-called war on terror.

"Pakistan's collaboration in the U.S. 'war on terror' has been exemplified by a disregard for due process. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, allegedly with the support of U.S. authorities in Pakistan, have taken place with depressing regularity," Adams said.

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