ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani court Monday suspended a detention order keeping the alleged planner of the Mumbai terror attacks in jail, possibly paving the way for his release, officials said.
The prospect of Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi going free presents an embarrassing turn of events for the Pakistani government that has vowed to crack down hard on militancy following the Dec. 16 Taliban school attack in Peshawar that left at least 148 people dead, mostly schoolchildren. It also raises the prospect of a serious political conflict with India, which has long-accused Islamabad of being soft on its home-grown militants.
Lakhvi is one of seven men on trial in Pakistan in connection with the 2008 attack in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people.
Lakhvi is still in prison, pending the posting of his bail money, and Pakistani officials could try to fight the court’s decision. An immediate condemnation by neighbouring India, calling the development “extremely disturbing,” underscored how contentious the issue remains.
The ruling came at a hearing in the capital of Islamabad, said prosecutor Jahanagir Jadoon.
Monday’s developments stemmed from a surprise Dec. 18 ruling in which the judge in a Pakistani anti-terrorism court hearing Lakhvi’s case granted him bail, saying there was not enough evidence to hold him.
The government immediately ordered his detention for 30 days under a law giving them leeway to detain certain suspects. Lakhvi then appealed the detention order.
Monday’s hearing in a separate court was to hear that appeal. Judge Noorul Haq Qureshi said no grounds were provided Monday to continue Lakhvi’s detention, according to Jadoon.
The judge set another hearing date for Jan. 15 and said that if the Interior Ministry provides evidence to justify Lakhvi’s continued detention, he could reverse the Monday order, Jadoon said.
A spokesman for the prime minister could not be reached for comment Monday, and Pakistani television reported that senior officials were meeting at the Interior Ministry to discuss the case.
News of Lakhvi’s possible release puts a spotlight on Pakistan’s policies toward militancy just as it is pledging to get tough on terrorism following the Peshawar attack.
“The optics are simply atrocious,” said Michael Kugelman, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia. “This whole incident has really indicated a level of wishy-washiness in the Pakistan judicial system … that gives the lie to the notion that the country is going to be much more strong in how it goes after militants.”
India has long charged that a Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out the Mumbai attack with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agency and called on Pakistan to do more to fight militancy.
Pakistan vehemently denied any connection with the attack, and indicted Lakhvi and six others in Nov. 2009. But the case has proceeded slowly. All court proceedings are closed to the media and held in a high-security prison in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. So far the court has heard 50 witnesses in the case, said a lawyer for Lakhvi, Rizwan Abbasi.
India has already reacted angrily to any suggestion that Lakhvi might be released. India summoned Pakistan’s high commissioner to their Foreign Ministry Monday to voice their displeasure.
“It was once again conveyed that we expect the Government of Pakistan to abide by the commitment conveyed to us, including at the highest level, that expeditious steps would be taken to bring all those responsible for the heinous acts of terrorism in Mumbai to justice,” the ministry said in a statement. “It was extremely disturbing that despite the assurances we have been receiving over the last six years, and the recent tragedies in Pakistan, there seems to be no end in sight to Pakistan remaining a safe-haven for well-known terror groups.”
The bail announcement also puts a spotlight on Pakistan’s troubled court system, which has a shoddy record of prosecuting terrorism suspects. The system suffers from poor investigations by police, and intimidation of judges and witnesses. Anti-terrorism courts like the one trying Lakhvi were supposed to speed up trials but even they have become bogged down.
In the wake of the Peshawar attack the government has taken a number of legal steps to crack down on terrorists. The prime minister lifted a moratorium on the death penalty and announced that terrorism suspects would be tried by military courts as a way to speed up such trials.