Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pakistan Court: Free Alleged Mumbai-Linked Cleric

Via Yahoo! News (AP) -

A Pakistani court ordered the release Tuesday of a hard-line Islamist cleric allegedly linked to the attacks in Mumbai last year, his lawyer said, leading India to accuse Pakistan of not being serious about bringing militants to justice.

The Lahore High Court's decision to free Hafiz Mohammed Saeed from house arrest came as tensions are spiking in Pakistan's northwest along the Afghan border. Security forces early Tuesday rescued dozens of people kidnapped by militants, and the army is still battling Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley.

India has demanded that Pakistan vigorously pursue those behind the November siege of its commercial capital that killed 166 people and left nine of 10 gunmen dead. The two nuclear-armed nations have fought three wars in six decades.

Under tremendous pressure from the U.S. and other international powers to investigate domestic links to the attacks, Pakistan said it took several alleged suspects into custody in December.

They included Saeed, the head of a charity that the U.N. has called a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned militant outfit blamed in the attack. Pakistan's government also shut down or took control of many offices of the charity, known as Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

But Pakistan has a poor track record of prosecuting alleged militant leaders, and it has bickered with its giant South Asian neighbor over the proper amount of evidence needed to arrest, charge and convict the attack's suspected masterminds.

"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," India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters in New Delhi after the ruling.

Saeed's lawyer, A.K. Dogar, emerged from the courthouse Tuesday and said that judges had decided that Saeed's house arrest "is against the law and constitution of the country." Supporters shouted "God is Great!" as he spoke.

A copy of the court order could not immediately be obtained. Attorney General Sardar Latif Khosa said the government would read the detailed judgment before deciding whether to appeal the decision.

Other suspected leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba — including Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah, whom India claims planned the Mumbai attacks — remain in custody. They are facing trial at a court inside a high-security prison near the capital, Islamabad, according to three prison officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

The proceedings of the court are not open to the public, and is not clear what charges the men face or whether the trial has begun.

Pakistan has not publicly announced any indictment or charge against Saeed, and it is unclear what role he is suspected of playing in the Mumbai attack. However, Pakistani anti-terrorism laws allow suspects to be detained for up to a year as long as the government can convince courts to extend their detentions every 90 days.

Saeed helped establish Lashkar-e-Taiba two decades ago to fight Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. The group, believed to have had the support of Pakistani intelligence, was banned in 2002.

After that, Jamaat ud-Dawa emerged with Saeed as its leader, and it has been considered a highly effective aid organization, especially in its relief work.

Since the crackdown, it is believed to have taken another name — Falah-i-Insaniat — and its workers have been helping Pakistanis displaced by the Swat operation.

Saeed's spokesman Yahya Mujahid told The Associated Press that the court decision vindicated Saeed's claim that Jamaat-ud-Dawa is not linked to terrorism.

"We hope this order will be implemented," he said. "Our organization is working to serve the suffering humanity."

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