ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Just two days after a school massacre that stunned the nation, Pakistani leaders on Thursday moved to expedite the executions of prisoners convicted of taking part in major terrorist attacks.
Army Gen. Raheel Sharif, head of the country’s powerful military, signed death warrants for six “hard-core terrorists.” The warrants cannot be appealed, and the prisoners are expected to be hanged within days.
Sharif’s action came a day after the prime minister rescinded a moratorium on executions.
The six prisoners — whom the army has declined to identify until they are dead, citing “security risks” — had been convicted in a military court and are part of a pool of more than five dozen prisoners the government is eyeing for likely execution, now that the moratorium has been lifted, officials said Thursday.
The lifting of the moratorium comes after Taliban gunmen killed 148 students and teachers in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Tuesday. But the government’s pledges to aggressively combat all forms of terrorism were undermined Thursday when a Pakistani court granted bail to a key suspect in a deadly 2008 assault in Mumbai, sparking outrage in India.
The decision — made over the objections of government lawyers — is once again testing efforts to improve relations between Pakistan and India.
“Does Pakistan not think of the Mumbai terror attack as a big thing?” said Ujjwal Nikam, who was the Indian public prosecutor in the November 2008 assault, which began with commando-style strikes and culminated with a siege at the city’s landmark Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel; 166 people were killed in multiple attacks.
At a hastily arranged news conference in Mumbai, Nikam accused Pakistan of “following two standards.”
“One policy to deal with Taliban’s terror, another when groups are targeting India,” he said.
Hours earlier, a judge in an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi had granted bail of $10,000 to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, an alleged leader of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.
Lakhvi’s attorney, Rizwan Abbasi, said there was no “substantial evidence” against his client other than claims that he was a Lashkar-e-Taiba commander.
“This charge can’t prove he was involved in the Mumbai attack. And it also couldn’t be proved that he was commander” of the group, Abbasi said.
Calling the situation “unfortunate,” India’s minister of home affairs, Rajnath Singh, demanded that Pakistani leaders appeal Lakhvi’s release.
In the 2008 attacks, 10 gunmen from Lashkar-e-Taiba entered Mumbai from the sea via Karachi, Pakistan, and waged a campaign of terror over two days.Armed with explosives and automatic rifles, they launched a coordinated attack on the Taj hotel as well as a Jewish community center. About 300 people were wounded throughout the two-day series of attacks.
One of the Pakistani terrorists linked to the attacks, Ajmal Amir Kasab, was arrested by police during the attack and was tried and convicted. He was hanged in 2012. But Pakistan refused to hand over additional suspects.
Lakhvi and six other men were charged in Pakistan.
“We call upon the government of Pakistan to immediately take steps to reverse this decision. There can be no selective approaches to terrorism,” said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
There was no immediate official comment from Pakistan. A Pakistani diplomat, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that the country “has independent courts” and stressed that the government will file an appeal.
But the court’s decision is reigniting long-standing perceptions that Pakistan maintains a double standard on terrorism. Lashkar-e-Taiba, founded in 1990 with support from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, aims to drive India out of Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both countries.
India and Pakistan have fought two major wars over Kashmir. And India has long demanded that Pakistan act against Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taliba, who lives openly in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.
Still, despite the decades of hostility between the two countries, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday to offer his condolences after the Peshawar attack.
On the same day, Sharif announced that he was lifting a moratorium on the death penalty. Under pressure from human rights groups and European donors, Pakistan imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2008. Activists allege that hundreds of prisoners have gone “missing” since then, and they suspect that there have been extrajudicial killings. Military officials deny the assertion.
In addition to the six prisoners to be hanged soon, the government has forwarded the names of 63 terrorism convicts who are being held for capital crimes and have exhausted their appeals. Those prisoners are likely to be executed in the coming months, officials said.
Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper, which first reported the decision, said the six prisoners facing execution have links to some of the country’s most high-profile attacks, including a 2009 shooting in Lahore in which six players from the Sri Lankan cricket team were wounded.
In northwestern Pakistan, a hub of Taliban activity, the news of the impending executions put officials on edge.
On Thursday, the inspector general in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province issued a “red alert” to prisons, warning that militants could strike in an attempt to free jailed fighters.
“Matter most urgent,” the alert states.
Gowen reported from New Delhi. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.