LAHORE, Pakistan (AFP) – A Pakistan court ordered the release of the head of a charity blacklisted in the West as a terror group and linked by India to the deadly Mumbai attacks, hiking tensions in the region.
Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group accused by India and Washington of killing 166 people in the Indian financial capital last year, has been under house arrest.
The order, as announced by a lawyer, sparked swift reprimand from nuclear rival India and was likely to ruffle relations with the United States, which has made rooting out Islamist extremism in Pakistan its key foreign policy.
“The arrest violated the constitution, therefore Hafiz Saeed and his colleagues are being released,” lawyer A.K Dogar told reporters after three judges presided over a session at the high court in the eastern city of Lahore.
Pakistan put Hafiz and three of his co-leaders under house arrest in early December and publicly shut offices of the charity after the UN Security Council blacklisted the organisation a terror group.
The United States also sees the charity, which operates out of a sprawling headquarters near Lahore, as a terror group and Pakistan came under huge Western pressure to round up Saeed and other Dawa members.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over the fate of disputed territory in Kashmir, over which Saeed founded LeT in 1989.
Saeed reportedly abandoned LeT when it was outlawed in Pakistan after India accused the group of being behind a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.
The group, whose name means “army of the pious,” was established to fight Indian rule in Kashmir and has past links to both Pakistani intelligence services and Al-Qaeda.
India swiftly stated its disappointment at the court’s decision.
“We are unhappy that Pakistan has not shown the degree of seriousness and commitment it should have to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks,” Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram told reporters.
Dawa, which is one of Pakistan’s biggest charities and known across the country for its relief work after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, denies all terror accusations.
India says the charity is a front for the LeT, which it also accuses for the 2001 attack on its parliament that pushed the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war, and has demanded that Pakistan outlaw the organisation.
Dawa welcomed Tuesday’s developments.
“Hafiz Saeed is not a terrorist. Dawa is not a terrorist organisation and the release order is good news for the party,” said Yahya Mujahid, a spokesman.
“We hope the authorities will now withdraw police guards deputed outside his residence… He can now move freely, meet his family and friends and resume the relief work of his party,” the spokesman added.
The 60-hour siege, which targeted a string of high profile targets in Mumbai, soured a five-year peace process between the South Asian rivals.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose re-election was welcomed as an opportunity to rekindle peace talks with Pakistan, has warned that the process would remain on hold unless Pakistan prosecuted those behind the attacks.
Pakistan and India began a slow-moving peace process in February 2004 but this came to a halt after the November attacks.
New Delhi has said it has “overwhelming evidence” that “official agencies” in Pakistan were involved in plotting and carrying out the attacks, an apparent reference to such Pakistani institutions as its spy agency and army.
Pakistan denies the accusations but has admitted that at least part of the plot was planned on its territory.
India has put on trial a Pakistani man, alleged to be the only gunman to survive the killing spree, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including “waging war against India,” which carries the death penalty.
India has in the past accused Pakistan of not doing enough to dismantle training camps and infrastructure on its soil allegedly used for launching attacks across their common border.