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A Revolving Door for Pakistan's Militants

November 17, 2002|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Police believed they had a good bust: members of an outlawed group allied with Al Qaeda who were caught with a cache of assault rifles, pistols, explosives and two CDs featuring Osama bin Laden.

When the 11 suspected militants from Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen, the Pakistani group with the longest and most direct ties to Bin Laden, were locked up, the charge sheet landed on the desk of Sher Mohammed Khan, an anti-terrorism prosecutor working from a cubbyhole of an office.

The case promptly hit a wall.

Within days, the arrests were shrugged off as a setup by overzealous cops. Khan agreed bail was appropriate, and a special anti-terrorism court granted it about a month after the August arrest. The two leaders of the 11 were quickly back on the street.

One step forward in the war on terrorism became two steps back.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who was sworn in Saturday for five more years, is working closely with the U.S. in the roundup of foreign terror suspects. But his government's record against home-grown militants, many of them allies of Bin Laden, looks less resolute.

Security forces have detained about 3,300 Pakistanis in sweeps against local extremist groups. At least 1,300 have been released, often after signing promises of good behavior. Among those released in recent weeks are leaders of groups accused of killing hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims and of launching terrorist attacks against neighboring India. Musharraf has banned both groups.

Authorities are still holding 1,982 without charge, according to confidential government figures. Musharraf issued a decree last month extending the detention limit from 90 days to a year. In trials that have reached a verdict, 41 people have been convicted and 21 acquitted.

Critics maintain that, at best, Musharraf is warehousing some extremists and leaving others untouched for fear of alienating the religious right whose support he needs.

A pattern of well-publicized arrests followed by quiet releases also feeds suspicion that extremists are being protected, raising doubts that Pakistan can get rid of terrorist networks by pruning them back instead of cutting them off at the root.

The contradiction is born of Musharraf's struggle to hold on to power, said Samina Ahmed, Pakistan project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization of security and foreign policy analysts.

"The main focus of the Musharraf government seems to be much more on its own survival than eradicating terrorism on a systematic basis," said Ahmed, a former researcher at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Musharraf's maneuverability also is limited by the conflict over Kashmir. He was able to break with Afghanistan's Taliban regime, but denouncing militants fighting Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir state would betray a struggle that began with Pakistan's birth 55 years ago. And Kashmir has long been a rallying point for terrorists.

Prosecutor Khan, an obliging man with a bushy handlebar mustache, insisted that the nine men and two teenagers arrested in Peshawar were not terrorists.

"They were people from the laboring class residing together in a house," he said. "During the investigation, one or two Kalashnikovs were recovered, and the accused said someone had put these in their house, and they had not searched the bag."

He accused the police of framing the men, something that he says happens all the time. "As far as our people are concerned, I can clearly say that they show suspects are guilty by planting things," he said. "It gets more attention from the government."

The prosecutor said the police didn't allege that the suspects were part of a terrorist group, even though the charge sheet clearly does. Police said they found more than a couple of assault rifles: six pistols, four hand grenades, four detonators, 100 rounds of different types of ammunition, 60 national identity cards in various names and two Harkat membership cards.

In a report filed the night of the arrest, police said they had received a tip that Harkat, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were regrouping in a Peshawar house.

"These persons are engaged in terrorist activities and spreading disinformation against the government," Assistant Inspector General Abdul Majeed Marwat alleged. "It is presumed that these persons were planning for mass destruction in Peshawar, and some VIPs were also on their hit list."

Khan made clear, however, that he doesn't intend to prosecute the nine members of the group still in jail and trying to make bail of about $5,000 each.

Meanwhile, one of the two men released admitted in an interview at his home in Hayatabad, near Peshawar, that he and the group's leader are Harkat members. And he confirmed that police found explosives in the house. The man spoke on the condition he not be identified because his superiors hadn't approved the interview.

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