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Militant Leader Hafiz Saeed Is Released by Pakistani Court

In January, the government declared him under house arrest, seeming to bow to international pressure and also keeping him from fund-raising for Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The arrest order was extended several times until Wednesday, when a three-member judicial body reviewed and rejected a government request to extend Mr. Saeed’s detention for 90 more days. His current detention order expires overnight Thursday.

“We are overjoyed to announce that after waiting for 10 long months, our chief will finally be free,” Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s information secretary, Nadeem Awan, said in an interview. “There is a lot of celebration and happiness within our ranks, and we are proud that we have been able to get justice the legal way, through the courts.”

Mr. Awan said the government’s lawyers had repeatedly argued in court that Mr. Saeed was a threat to public safety and that his release could lead to international penalties for Pakistan for not moving against terrorism financing.

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An Indian security officer during the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. India has long demanded that the Pakistani government move against Mr. Saeed, who founded the group behind the attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Credit David Guttenfelder/Associated Press

“But at no point was the government able to provide any actual evidence for these charges, despite the court giving it many chances to do so,” Mr. Awan said.

“The review board has now rescinded the detention order,” said Mr. Saeed’s lawyer, Abdullah Khan Dogar. “The government of Punjab is now bound to release Hafiz Saeed. They no longer have any right to keep him in custody.”

A Punjab government spokesman confirmed that the government was releasing Mr. Saeed, “though our concerns about his activities are far from resolved.”

His latest stint under house arrest was not the first for Mr. Saeed, though he has repeatedly avoided long-term detention or serious legal charges. He was placed under detention at least twice after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

For decades, Pakistan has cast a benign eye on groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba — which is perceived as an asset because its attacks target Indian soldiers in Kashmir — even as the government battles jihadist groups like the Pakistani Taliban that directly threaten the country.

But despite its pressure on Pakistan to move against militants like Mr. Saeed, the United States has also sent mixed messages.

Just a month ago, the United States Senate struck down a provision tying American government funding to Pakistan to the country’s efforts to curb Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operations. The provision, part of broader Pentagon-funding legislation that Congress introduced this past summer, would have forced the secretary of defense to certify that Islamabad was thwarting Lashkar-e-Taiba’s activities inside Pakistan or risk $ 350 million in American assistance.

Representative Ted Poe, Republican of Texas, said military aid to Pakistan was a continuing source of tension between the Pentagon and Congress.

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The police escort vehicle carrying Mr. Saeed from court on Wednesday was showered with flower petals by supporters. Credit Rahat Dar/European Pressphoto Agency

“It astounds me that we keep giving Pakistan money — military and foreign aid — and they’re a haven for terror groups, from the Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba,” Mr. Poe said in a telephone interview last week. “The military folks over the years have not made the case to me that we should continue military support to Pakistan.”

President Trump has been publicly critical of Pakistan’s role in the region, announcing a South Asia strategy in August that called out Pakistan for giving “safe haven” to terrorist groups. He vowed to strengthen the United States’ relationship with India instead.

The speech was received poorly in Islamabad, with Pakistani officials saying they would pivot to China instead to compensate for their strained relationship with Washington. China is spending billions of dollars to build a network of roads and a seaport in Pakistan.

“We can’t buy Pakistan’s loyalty,” Mr. Poe said. “They play everyone, whether it’s China or the terrorists or us.”

In India, the response to the Pakistani court ruling was outrage.

The media organization India Today ran a banner headline on its news channel saying that “jihad over justice” had prevailed. Gaurav C. Sawant, an Indian newscaster, called Mr. Saeed a “butcher of 166 innocent smiles,” referring to the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

“Every time that the international pressure on Pakistan mounts to a certain degree, they have a reflex action of putting Hafiz Saeed and his cohorts behind the bars,” said Maj. Gen. G.D. Bakshi, an Indian defense expert, in an interview with the news channel. “The moment that pressure abates, the Pakistani courts very promptly find that there is no evidence.”

Now, speculation in Pakistan is focusing on whether Mr. Saeed will openly take a leadership role in the Milli Muslim League, the political party formed by his group Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

In an interview with The New York Times in September, Naveed Qamar, the Milli Muslim League’s campaign manager, said the party had the blessings of Mr. Saeed, who would lead it once he was released.

“Once he gets out and restarts all his activities and starts his work again, then we will announce what his plans for the political party are,” Mr. Awan, of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, said on Wednesday.

Source: NYT > World

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