Pakistan hailed the lifting of its five-year suspension from the Commonwealth as the "right decision," as opposition parties lamented it was a reward for dictatorship.

"It is the right decision at the right time," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid told AFP after the Commonwealth's decision Saturday to lift the suspension.

"We have fulfilled all the requirements and it's a wise decision," he said.

The world's second largest Muslim country was readmitted to the 53-nation club by a nine-member committee meeting in London, but was warned it must consolidate "the process of democratisation."

Reintegrating Pakistan

Saturday's decision ends a four-and-half-year suspension imposed after President Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup.

It seals the reintegration of Pakistan, which has one of the world's biggest Muslim populations, into the international fold.

But the Commonwealth said after a meeting of foreign ministers and diplomats it expected Musharraf to fulfil a pledge to stand down as chief of the army by the end of this year.

"The (Commonwealth) welcomed the progress made in restoring democracy and rebuilding democratic institutions in Pakistan," said Secretary General Don McKinnon.

US ally

"(It) decided therefore that Pakistan should no longer remain suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth."

"Let's remember he (Musharraf) has stood by every commitment he has made, that is his track record... he will abide by that (his pledge to step down as head of the army)"

Maleeha Lodhi,
Pakistan high commissioner to London

McKinnon added Pakistan had to fully implement amendments to its constitution "in letter and in spirit", including the "the issue of the separation of the offices of the president and chief of army staff".

Pakistan has already been embraced by the United States as a major ally, widely seen as a reward for its support in the US-led "war against terror".

Many analysts had predicted the Commonwealth, comprising mostly former British colonies, would bow to Pakistan's growing acceptance in the international community.

"This is our moral victory. We deserve it," said Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.

Commonwealth credibility

Pakistan's high commissioner to London, Maleeha Lodhi, said she was confident Musharraf would step down as head of the army by the end of the year.

"Let's remember he has stood by every commitment he has made, that is his track record... he will abide by that," she said.

Pakistan, which has a population of 149 million, argued it had fulfilled the Commonwealth's demands and that the credibility of the organisation was at stake if it decided not to readmit the country.

But diplomats said an apparent softening of Musharraf's pledge to give up his army uniform and the deportation earlier this month of Shahbaz Sharif, deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, had raised concerns.

"Systemic human rights violations – including torture, deaths in custody and extrajudicial killings – continued. Abuses committed against women, children and religious minorities, including Christians and Shia Muslims, continued to be ignored"

Amnesty International report on Pakistan

The foreign ministers of Nigeria, India, Canada, Tanzania, Lesotho, the Bahamas, Malta, Samoa and Sri Lanka made the decision in the name of the Commonwealth.

Rights abuses

However, the decision is unlikely to be universally welcomed given Musharraf's lack of democratic credentials and human rights record.

In a recent report on Pakistan, rights group Amnesty International said abuses committed in the context of the government's support for the "war on terror" included the arbitrary detention of hundreds of people.

The report said: "In addition, systemic human rights violations – including torture, deaths in custody and extrajudicial killings – continued.

"Abuses committed against women, children and religious minorities, including Christians and Shia Muslims, continued to be ignored."