Madam's Claims Rock Pakistani Government

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A brothel operator has rocked the conservative Islamic government by alleging that prominent lawmakers and religious leaders regularly patronized her business.

Madam Tahira, a 35-year-old former dancer, ran the brothel for about nine years before officers raided Tahira's house last week and arrested her on charges of possession of illegal weapons and liquor, which is banned in this predominantly Muslim country.

Police said they also seized her diary, which contained a list of clients, and visiting cards of businessmen, leading bureaucrats and Islamabad-based diplomats.

Tahira claimed her most frequent customers included at least one Cabinet minister and other lawmakers who in May pushed through Parliament a bill to make Pakistan more Islamic.

While Parliament was debating the bill, she said in a statement to police, its staunchest supporters visited her house daily.

She alleged her clients included a judge on the federal Islamic court and lawmakers who led nationwide demonstrations in 1989 against British author Salman Rushdie and his novel, "The Satanic Verses," for defaming Islam.

The scandal has been an embarrassment for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Islamic Democratic Alliance, already beset by internal feuds, name-calling and the sudden collapse of dozens of financial cooperatives that cost tens of thousands of Pakistanis a total of $800 million.

Alliance members called the scandal a setup.

The opposition Pakistan People's Party headed by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto agreed, saying the accusations appeared aimed at lawmakers critical of the government's policies.

Tahira, who uses only one name, claims police, without her consent or knowledge, recorded her lengthy and detailed statement about her operation.

Police then leaked the tape to the English- and Urdu-language newspapers, which plastered the contents across their front pages.

No charges have been filed against any of Tahira's alleged clients, police said.

Under Islamic law, the penalty for adultery is death by stoning.

In her statement to police, Tahira spoke explicitly and in detail about her customers, their preferences and behavior.

The tape names some clientele, but so far no one has published them.