Around 12:30 am early on Friday, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Chief Hafiz Saeed, the main accused in the 2008 Mumbai attacks,and a global designated terrorist was finally a free man. His release came after the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Wednesday ruled that there was “insufficient evidence” against him to prolong his house arrest.
Long before midnight, hundreds of Saeed’s supporters thronged the area outside his residence, as the jail staff withdrew. The supporters distributed sweets and chanted in Saeed’s support, raising slogans for the ‘freedom of Kashmir’. Following international pressure, Saeed had been detained in January for three months, which was extended multiple times, till the LHC ruling released him.
Pakistani authorities were already under pressure with the Tehreek-Labaik-ya-Rasool-Allah (TLY) having blocked the main highway from Islamabad since November 6. International observers say that Sayeed’s release couldn’t have taken place without the tacit backing of the Pakistani “deep-state” a euphemism for the military-led intelligence agency, the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence). This could also be a move, these observers say, to cut the civilian government down to size.
During the hearing, Abdul Sami Khan, heading the three-member board reviewing the government’s request for extension, told the prosecutor, “You’re saying that Hafiz Saeed is the target of international pressure, but he alone isn’t the one responsible. The allegations you’re putting on him are true for many others. Why are you only after him?”
Immediately after the verdict Saeed was quick to send his message across to India. “India has always leveled allegations of terrorism … but (Lahore) High Court decision has proved that all of India’s propaganda are false,” he said in a video message. Coupled with the messages for India were the outlining of the plan of action.
“The government succumbs to Indian pressure. The masses, the political parties – especially the religious parties – all fully support Hafiz Saeed,” JuD spokesman Nadeem Awan said while talking to Asia Times. Awan added that while JuD had continued to function amidst Saeed’s detention, his release is a major boost for the group. “Jamaat-ud-Dawa would continue its usual activities, and Hafiz Saeed would start working on the prospects of the Milli Muslim League (MML) now that he’s out,” he said, confirming that a meeting in this regard has already taken place at his residence.
Milli Muslim League is the political offshoot of JuD, whose affiliated candidates Yaqoob Sheikh and Liaqat Ali Khan contested by-elections in in NA-120 (Lahore) and NA-4 (Peshawar) in September and October respectively. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is yet to register the party following the Interior Ministry’s insistence, citing MML’s links to LeT and JuD.
“This government is taking instructions from India,” said MML Finance Secretary and Spokesman Ehsanullah while talking to Asia Times on his way back from the meeting with Hafiz Saeed on Thursday. “But now that Mr Hafiz Saeed has been released, and has already started planning for general elections, they can’t do anything about it.”
Ehsanullah says that MML is currently fully focused on getting itself registered with the ECP. “Mr Hafiz Saeed will soon start planning out our membership strategy and getting others on board through networking,” he added.
In September’s NA-120 by-election, MML backed Yaqoob Sheikh won 5,822 votes. While the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won the contest, it lost over 14,000 votes compared to the 2013 general elections, in the center of Lahore – considered to be the party’s political hub.
Military scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, author of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’ believes the MML will divide the urban PML-N vote in Punjab. “It won’t have much more impact other than that. But yes, the decision to release Hafiz Saeed basically denotes an effort by the security establishment to give confidence to its JuD allies,” she said while talking to Asia Times. Political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of ‘The Military and Politics’ in Pakistan says the government faces a major dilemma on Hafiz Saeed. “On the one hand there’s international pressure – especially American pressure – to contain his activities, on the other hand they don’t have enough criminal data to keep him in detention of an indefinite period,” he said while talking to Asia Times.
He also believes that the MML won’t have much impact on its own to be a part of the government on its own. “Unless of course it forms a coalition with other religious parties,” he said.