By Prabhat Sharan and Rohit Wadhwaney
A Pakistani court’s decision Wednesday to set free the alleged mastermind of the deadly 2008 Mumbai terror attack left people in India expressing shock and outrage.
Pakistani national Hafiz Saeed, co-founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its offshoot Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), has been under house arrest in Lahore since January and will likely walk free on Friday, two days before the anniversary of the third-deadliest terror assault in India.
Saeed, 68, is accused of masterminding a series of shooting and bomb attacks that began on Nov. 26, 2008 and lasted four days across Mumbai – India’s financial hub – and killed 166 people. He has, however, repeatedly denied involvement in the terror strike.
Saeed’s release was a “slap in the face” of the Indian government and victims of the attack, said Tarun Sethi, 35, who survived the attack.
“After Pakistan dropped terror charges against him in October, it was expected that he would be released soon. But it is still shocking and extremely upsetting to know that he will be a free man come Friday, while we continue to bear the trauma of the attack for the rest of our lives,” Sethi, who was at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai’s main railway station, when gunmen opened fire there during the November 2008 attack, told BenarNews.
On Wednesday, the Federal Review Board rejected a request from the government of Pakistan’s Punjab province to extend Saeed’s detention by three more months, saying there was insufficient evidence to keep holding him, according to the Press Trust of India.
“The government is ordered to release JuD chief Hafiz Saeed if he is not wanted in any other case,” the board said, adding, “[The] concept of justice cannot be brutalized and terrorized in the name of fight against terrorism.”
The board last month had withdrawn terror charges against Saeed, who has been declared a globally designated terrorist by the United Nations, the United States and India, but was kept under house arrest under the Maintenance of Public Order Act. That detention period expires Thursday.
Amita Raichand, an actor who was trapped inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel when the attackers stormed the five-star property, said the Indian government should put pressure on Pakistan to ensure that Saeed is not released.
“They [Pakistan] are showing us the finger. We [India] should do something about it. Releasing him just days ahead of 26/11 is like rubbing salt on our wounds,” Raichand told reporters. The 2008 Mumbai attack is commonly referred to in India as “26/11.”
Linked with Kashmir
In a video uploaded on social media by Saeed’s supporters following the court’s verdict, the JuD chief said India had pressured Pakistan to detain him because of his association with Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan region claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan.
A separatist insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir has claimed more than 70,000 lives since the late 1980s.
“It is because of Kashmir that India is after me, but all her efforts have been in vain and Allah has set me free. This is a victory of Pakistan’s freedom and, God willing, Kashmir will also be freed because I am fighting for it,” Saeed said.
Public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, who argued successfully for the death sentence for Ajmal Kasab, the only one of the 10 Mumbai attackers caught alive, described Saeed’s release verdict as “befooling.” Kasab was hanged in 2012.
“Now, America should notice this matter since it designated Hafiz Saeed as [a] global terrorist,” Nikam told the Times Now news channel.
Prakash George, a former Anti-Terrorist Squad officer of Mumbai police, said he was “hardly surprised” at Pakistan’s decision to free Saeed.
“He was placed under house arrest only because of the pressure India and the international community had built up on Pakistan to crackdown on terror cells operating on its soil. It was just eyewash,” George told BenarNews.
“Following the 2008 attack, we had submitted clinching evidence, including Kasab’s confessions, of Saeed’s involvement. But Pakistani officials kept on demanding more. It seemed that they didn’t want to believe any evidence we supplied to them,” he said.
Activists said Saeed’s likely release on Friday would be a major setback to peace in the sub-continent.
“Saeed is accused of orchestrating several terrorist attacks, not just the Mumbai attack,” Jatin Desai, general secretary of Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, told BenarNews. “His release will have an adverse impact because he is known for spewing venom against India in his inflammatory speeches that he delivers routinely in Pakistan.”