Pakistani Court Orders Release of Suspected Mumbai Attack Mastermind

By Griff Witte and Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 2 -- A Pakistani court on Tuesday ordered the immediate release of the founder of a banned militant group that is thought to be behind last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

India swiftly denounced the decision, saying it demonstrated that Pakistan was not serious about cracking down on homegrown radical Islamist groups.

The ruling came six months after Pakistan placed Hafiz Sayeed, founder of Lashkar-i-Taiba, under house arrest. Lashkar is suspected of organizing November's three-day siege in Mumbai, which left more than 170 people dead. Sayeed's attorney said Tuesday that the Lahore High Court had ruled there was insufficient evidence to continue holding him. The government could appeal the decision, although it was unclear Tuesday whether it would.

Outside the courthouse, Sayeed's supporters responded to the decision with cheers and chants of "God is great!"

In India, officials expressed deep displeasure.

"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," Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram told reporters in New Delhi.

Analysts on Indian television stations slammed the move throughout the day, saying it was typical of Pakistani "catch and release" programs for terrorists.

Sayeed, 59, is the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a group that he says is a charity but that the United Nations considers a front for Lashkar. Pakistan banned Jamaat late last year under international pressure. The group recently has reemerged under yet another name, Falah-i-Insaniat, and has been providing assistance to some of the 3 million Pakistanis displaced by the army's battle with the Taliban in the Swat Valley.

Lashkar was founded by Sayeed and others in the late 1980s, with heavy assistance from the Pakistani military and intelligence services. The group's original mission was to battle Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, but in recent years, it has developed close ties to al-Qaeda and has taken up the cause of transnational radical Islam.

Sayeed had not been charged publicly with any crime, and it is unclear what evidence Pakistani investigators had linking him to the Mumbai attacks. "The judicial verdict is a victory of justice and law," Sayeed told the television channel Geo News in a phone interview from his home near Lahore. He said the government inaccurately linked his group to al-Qaeda and denied he had ever been in touch with the sole surviving gunman from the Mumbai attacks, Ajmal Amir Kasab.

India, however, insists the record is clear.

Sayeed, Lashkar and Jamaat "have a long and well-established background of planning and launching terrorist acts against India," the Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "His professed ideology and public statements leave no doubt as to his terrorist inclinations."

India has charged Sayeed in absentia and says it has compiled a thick file of evidence against him. Indian officials say Pakistan has a track record of arresting terrorism suspects under foreign pressure but releasing them when the heat is off. Pakistani officials said Tuesday that the decision to free Sayeed was made by an independent judiciary and that the government could not overrule the court's judgment.

The release came as Pakistani troops continued to battle Taliban forces in the Swat Valley. The military announced it had killed 21 insurgents in Swat in the previous 24 hours. It added that three soldiers had been killed. The military says it has killed more than 1,200 insurgents in Swat since the operation began about a month ago; roughly 100 soldiers have reportedly died.

The United Nations reported this week that it has received only about a fifth of the $543 million in emergency international aid it had appealed for last month to assist those displaced by the fighting and that the poor response could impede relief efforts.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region, is expected to travel to Pakistan beginning Wednesday and focus on the issue of the displaced families.

Lakshmi reported from New Delhi. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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