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Pakistan court orders release of cleric in Mumbai attacks

Hafiz Saeed founded Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group blamed for the deadly attacks. India says his release indicates Pakistan is not serious about bringing the militants to justice.

June 03, 2009|Alex Rodriguez and Mark Magnier

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, AND NEW DELHI — A Pakistani court Tuesday ordered the release of a firebrand Islamic cleric with alleged links to the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai last year, sparking an angry rebuke from Indian officials that Pakistan is not committed to meting out justice for militants.

Hafiz Saeed, head of a charity that international organizations have said is tied to the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, had been held under house arrest since Dec. 11, though he had not been publicly charged or indicted. Lashkar-e-Taiba has been accused by Indian officials of engineering and carrying out the attacks in Mumbai that left about 170 people dead in November.

The United Nations regards Saeed's charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was formed 20 years ago to fight Indian rule in the Himalayan region of Kashmir. Saeed founded Lashkar-e-Taiba with what has been widely reported as support from Pakistan's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

The court ruling could worsen relations between Pakistan and India, nuclear-armed countries that regard each other as archenemies and have fought three wars in the last six decades. India has accused Pakistan of dragging its feet in tracking down Lashkar-e-Taiba members involved in the rampage in Mumbai, India's commercial and entertainment capital.

Under intense pressure from Washington, Pakistani authorities arrested several members of the militant group, including Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah, both of whom India asserts engineered the Mumbai attacks. The men are being held by Pakistani authorities. Saeed was placed under house arrest, and the Pakistani government closed many of the relief offices, hospitals, schools, and madrasas operated by Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

The ruling Tuesday renewed criticism from India that Pakistan's resolve to fight militant organizations was not genuine.

"We are unhappy that Pakistan has not shown the degree of seriousness and commitment it should have to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks," Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters Tuesday.

Indian analysts said Pakistan has a history of arresting suspects, then quietly letting them go a few weeks later when the spotlight has shifted. The pattern reflects the close links between Pakistan's intelligence agency and militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which it viewed as useful proxy warriors in the decades-long fight with India over disputed Kashmir.

The three-judge panel that issued the ruling in the city of Lahore did not explain its decision. Saeed's lawyer, A.K. Dogar, argued that there were no legal grounds to support Saeed's house arrest and that his detention was a violation of human rights.

"So far, there is no proof available about his involvement in Mumbai or any other terrorist attack," Dogar said. "What is his crime? He opened 162 schools in this country and many hospitals for the poor people of Pakistan, and was providing relief to calamity-hit people."

In India, Saeed, 59, is regarded as one of the country's most-wanted men. Pakistani authorities have arrested him twice before in connection with terrorist attacks on Indian soil -- in 2001 after an attack on the Indian Parliament and in 2006 after train bombings in Mumbai that killed about 200 people. In both cases, he was held under house arrest for a short period before being released.

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ajrodriguez@tribune.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Special correspondent Aoun Sahi in Lahore contributed to this report.

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