Five months after Pakistan's military regime ended direct rule of the country, its legacy of political prisoners appears as a stark challenge to the civilian adminstration's declared effort to establish a working democracy.

Human rights organizations estimate that between 200 and 380 political prisoners from the martial- law period remain in Pakistani jails, many of them convicted by special military courts, often on the basis of confessions suspected of being extracted under torture.

Because of conditions set by President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq before he lifted martial law last December, the prisoners have no way of reopening their cases in the civil courts and no apparent hope of getting out of jail.

Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo, the conservative politician who is managing Pakistan's evolution to parliamentary rule, has won applause from western diplomats and many Pakistanis for establishing broad political freedoms. But many observers believe that his ability -- or failure -- to reopen the cases of political prisoners will be an important sign of his real authority and of Zia's true commitment to liberalization.

"As long as my brother remains in prison, we cannot believe that democracy has come to our country," said Afshani Rizvi, a soft-spoken, 22-year-old Pakistani woman.

The shouts of neighborhood children playing cricket in the street drifted through the screen door of the Rizvis' modest row home as the family discussed Afshani's brother, Kamran. Salman Rizvi's pride in his son was obvious.

"Kamran is about 6 feet 4 inches tall -- a very big and strong man who has never shown any weakness to his parents," he said, "and also a very kind and gentle man." Kamran Rizvi, 27, is also one of Pakistan's most prominent political prisoners.

Five years ago this month, Pakistani police and military intelligence officers burst into a student hostel in nearby Rawalpindi and arrested Rizvi for possessing literature written "with a view to creating alarm and despondency amongst the people and excit[ing] dissatisfaction toward [Zia's] martial-law adminstration."

Rizvi's family and lawyer said the literature consisted of political pamphlets and a poem by an exiled Pakistani poet, all extolling the man Zia overthrew and later saw executed, former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. A military court sentenced Rizvi to 10 years in prison.

Last December, Zia, an Army general, ended martial law and closed the special military courts on the condition that the National Assembly pass a constitutional amendment ratifying his martial- law actions, including the military courts' decisions.

In so doing, Zia assured the long-term detention of many political opponents, including supporters of the Bhutto family and activists seeking greater autonomy for Pakistan's provinces.

Officials of Pakistan's Interior Ministry regularly deny that there are political prisoners in the country, although Junejo said in an interview this month that the military courts produced "some individual cases where some injustice has taken place."

Junejo has moved carefully on the issue, asking a legislative committee to study whether there is any way to allow a review of military court rulings, despite the constitutional ratification of martial law decisions.

Pakistani political observers believe Junejo's caution is a mark of the issue's sensitivity for Zia and the top military leaders. Junejo "has done the easy part, but he hasn't really pushed Zia" for a continued democratic evolution, a western diplomat said.

The military courts, in which at least two of the three judges were typically military officers with little or no legal training, frequently convicted prisoners who had been beaten, burned with cigarettes, strapped to blocks of ice or tortured in other ways, the human rights group Amnesty International said last fall. The State Department's 1985 human rights report to Congress cited "credible allegations [of] police, paramilitary and military torture of detainees" and said such abuse appeared "widespread."

Rizvi's case is especially sensitive because a military court last year convicted him and several others of plotting with Libya to overthrow Zia's government.

Rizvi's lawyer, Bashir Qureshi, said it had been impossible to defend Rizvi in the trial, conducted under the provisions of a Zia decree that shifted the burden to the defendants to prove their innocence. The decree also provided for special rules of evidence that allowed the military officers conducting the trial to block his defense arguments, he said.

"Unfortunately, I cannot tell you about it because it was a secret trial, and we had to swear an oath under the Official Secrets Act that we would never disclose anything which happened in the court proceedings," Qureshi said. "And," he added, "violating it carries the death penalty.

"But to give you the idea, I can tell you that in the middle of the trial, President Zia -- who was the commander in chief of the [presiding] officers -- announced in a press conference that Kamran and the others were guilty and must be severely punished," Qureshi said.

"In these trials, the military officers would cow down the defense lawyers and just refuse to accept our witnesses," said Malik Qasim, a lawyer in Lahore and a leader of the Political Prisoners Relief and Release Committee. "If they were uncertain about what to do they would just call a recess and telephone their superior officers for instructions," Qasim said.

Human rights activists say that when it became clear last fall that the military courts would be terminated, Zia's martial law administration accelerated the courts' operations to win convictions that would have been difficult under civil law. The U.S.-based Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights said in recent congressional testimony that the courts sentenced 26 persons to death last December alone.

The Rizvi family said Pakistan's new civilian administration has improved conditions for Kamran and other political prisoners. "He used to be a Class C prisoner. He was in a filthy room with one latrine and 60 to 100 criminals, and many of them violent," explained his sister, Afshani. "They were [each] given a dirty blanket and only a narrow space on the floor to sleep on."

Like other political prisoners, Afshani said, Rizvi spent long periods in prison shackled at the wrists, wearing chains even while he took the final exams to earn his BA degree in a Lahore jail, where he was kept in a cell with mentally disturbed prisoners.

A snapshot of Rizvi, taken during his trial on the conspiracy charge, showed a young, dark-haired man in shackles and fetters, solid iron bars fastened to a chain around his waist that prevented him from bending his knees.

"Now they have made him Class B, so he has a room with a bed and table, and no more shackles," Afshani said. But with Rizvi sentenced to prison until 1995, the promise of Pakistan's return to civilian rule has been empty for the Rizvis.

Afshani, worried that the cautious Junejo will not act to reopen her brother's case, has begun campaigning for Kamran. Last month, she addressed a rally for opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the former prime minister, who is trying to force Zia from office.

Afshani's speech was limited to calling for Kamran's freedom, but it typified Bhutto's use of the plight of political prisoners and their families as an emotional anti-Zia issue.