Pakistani court orders militant leader linked to Mumbai attacks released

India criticized the decision to free Hafiz Saeed, founder of the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

K.M. Chaudary/AP
Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, (c.) in white dress, chief of an Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa, walks on the compound of his residence after the Lahore High Court decision regarding his release in Lahore, Pakistan, on Tuesday.

LAHORE, PAKISTAN – A Pakistani court’s decision to release the founder of a militant group that India blames for masterminding last November’s Mumbai attacks will strike a blow to already strained Indian-Pakistani relations, according to analysts.

The order to release Hafiz Saeed – head of banned outfit Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) – from six months of house detention came Tuesday. It was met with cheers and cries of “God is great!” by dozens of his followers at the Lahore High Court.

“Praise be to God, we were granted justice,” Yahya Mujahid, a spokesman for the group told the Monitor.

India ‘unhappy’ at Saeed’s release

India saw things differently. Reacting to the news, Indian home minister P Chidambaram told reporters: “We are unhappy that Pakistan does not show the degree of seriousness and commitment that it should to bring to justice perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attack.”

Mr. Saeed and several other leaders had been placed under house arrest by Pakistani authorities on Dec. 11, 2008, shortly after November's attacks in Mumbai. The move was seen as an initial effort by Pakistan to rein in militant groups operating in the country, but even then analysts voiced concern that some detainees would simply be released after several months, as others had been before. For years, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence cultivated militant groups like LeT to fight India in Kashmir.

But was it fair?

On May 2, a court review board extended by 60 days the detention of Saeed and a retired army colonel, Nazir Ahmed. The government based its case for continuing to hold Saeed on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267, which names both JuD and LeT as entities associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Saeed's lawyer, A.K. Dogar, however, argued that the resolution makes provisions only for freezing assets and placing a travel ban and arms embargo upon individuals and groups, rather than specifying that they be detained. He also said there were insufficient grounds for their detention and it was therefore unconstitutional.

Government lawyers, for their part, had presented evidence on May 30 tying LeT to Al Qaeda, though this information was not presented before an open court.

A ‘very major setback’

Though the Pakistani government has stated it will appeal the verdict, the damage has already been done, says Ahmed Rashid, a veteran Pakistani journalist and best-selling author. “This will be a very major setback. It comes at a time when the government of India, which was strengthened after the elections, had been making some positive moves" toward rapprochement, he says.

“It’s the [Pakistani] government’s responsibility to build up a case and make sure he stays locked up. This will only raise more questions about their credibility in fighting terror.”

Rifaat Hussain, an analyst at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, adds that it will “further complicate the already complex and fragile India-Pakistan peace process. India had wanted to see the JuD leaders extradited or brought to a full trial in Pakistan. This sends the wrong signal.”

The fallout has already begun among the Indian media, with one prominent television anchor accusing Pakistan of “resuming its old dirty tricks.”

But according to Dr. Hussain, the court cannot be faulted for its verdict. “What we have here is the absence of a smoking gun. Unless he personally was involved in criminal activity it will be very difficult for the prosecution,” he says, adding that that the Indian government appears to be working on the assumption of guilty until proven innocent.

“If India had some concrete evidence that would be admissible in court, it was up to them to share it,” he says.

In January, India gave Pakistan a dossier linking LeT to the Mumbai attacks, to which Pakistan replied with a set of queries. Back-and-forth between the two governments continues, with Pakistan last week asking for answers to be sent in English rather than Hindi.

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