In action that should surprise none, a Pakistan court on November 7 freed six notorious Islamist militants, convicted earlier for their role, among other deeds, for masterminding the terror attack in Mumbai in November 2008. Those freed were identified as Prof Malik Zafar Iqbal, Nasrullah, Samiullah, Yahya Mujahid, Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki and Umar Bahadur. With the exception of Makki, all 5 terrorists were sentenced to 9 years imprisonment. Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki was sentenced to only 6 months of jail term. All of them were earlier charged by the Counter-Terrorism Department under the Anti-Terrorism Act Sections 11-F, 11-H (2), 11-I (2), 11-J (2), and 11-N.

However, a 2- judge Division Bench of the Lahore High Court comprising of Justices Muhammed Ameer Bhatti and Tariq Saleem Sheikh claimed that there was a miscarriage of justice at the trial court level. The advocate for the terrorists also added that the prosecutors failed to prove charges against the 6 terrorists beyond reasonable doubt. The court found several deep holes in the investigations by the government agencies and prosecution by the government lawyers, and ruled that there had been “miscarriage of justice” for those convicted for terms ranging from six months to nine years. This was a repeat performance. Earlier courts had also given such rulings, even passed severe strictures against the government. But the convicts were freed.

Some of the past verdicts were profusely celebrated – in the court itself, and those hailing the verdict included lawyers and court staff. The revellers would say it flower petals showered on those freed. Slogans were raised before the amused judge. Sweets were distributed and the freed convicts were paraded around in procession as heroes. That spectacle is avoided these days, perhaps, because of the presence of the social media and the revelry going viral. In Pakistan, when it comes to dealing with the Islamist militants, it more of the same. The pattern is familiar, even predictable, if one cares to follow.

The timing of the court order also has a familiar pattern ever since Pakistan has come under the scanner of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the UN-designated watchdog on terror financing and money-laundering. The ‘wanted’ men are placed under house arrest or if they are too vocal, active and high profile, cases, old and new, are launched and they are detained. The idea is to show them as being ‘punished’. But they are freed, either from house arrest of through court orders or granted bail, once the FATF scrutiny is over.

This is repeated each time the FATF proceedings are begun, amidst much hum and haw, and assurances that Pakistan has done its very best. But once the FATF retains Pakistan on the grey list, among the first to benefit are the terrorists and their masterminds. In this case, the six are mentored by Hafiz Saeed, the UN-designated terrorist who is the founder of Lashkar-e-Toyaba (LeT) and its charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Saeed has been convicted and freed many times and whenever he has become vocal to the inconvenience of the government, placed under house arrest.

The militant groups in Pakistan change names of their organisations to escape scrutiny and contest claims. For the November 6 verdict, name of a relatively new organisation cropped up. Lawyers for the six argued, successfully, that the six were members of the Al-Anfaal Trust and it has no connection to the banned LeT. The advocate also claimed that there was no evidence to suggest they were connected to LeT.

While noting the arguments of the defence, the Lahore High Court ruled in the favour of the 6 JUD terrorists. It stated, “In his cross-examination Inspector Muhammad Khalid (prosecution witness) conceded that the local police station never received any complaint against the appellants and even during his investigation nobody from the general public brought anything to his notice which could expose their malefactions. The appellants cannot be convicted for the mere reason that LeT or the trust have been proscribed.”
Pakistan has been using another ploy to obfuscate the cases pertaining to Islamist militants wanted by the law and by global human rights organisations. It maintains a watch list and includes and removes – more of the latter – names at convenience.

In April this year, a New York-based Artificial Intelligence startup had revealed that Pakistan has silently removed the names of almost 4,000 terrorists from its terror watch list. The removed names include LeT leader and Mumbai attack mastermind Zakir ur Rehman Lakhvi and many others.

The Artificial Intelligence startup Castellum has revealed quoting the Financial Action task Force that in October 2018 the country’s terror watchlist had 7,600 names. As the work of AI is to add new data sources, it noted that between March 9 and 27 data showed that Pakistan removed 1,069 names from the Proscribed person List and all those names appeared on the country’s de-notified list.

After 27 March, 800 names were also removed and eventually 3800 names have been placed on the de-notified list till so far without any explanation or notification to the public. Several of the names removed are the aliases of designated terrorists listed by the US or the United Nations. A vigilant FATF, before it met at this year’s plenary session, had taken strong exception to the sudden and stealthy disappearance of the names of more than 4,000 terrorists from its original list of 7,600 under Schedule IV of its Anti-Terrorism Act.

Last year, the United Nations committee had allowed terrorist Hafiz Saeed to use his bank account for ‘basic expenses’ to help his family. In its letter, the UN Committee said that with no objections being raised to Pakistan’s request for Hafiz Saeed’s basic expenses, the Chair has approved the appeal. Reportedly, Hafiz Saeed’s bank accounts were frozen by the Pakistani government complying with the UNSC resolution. Later, Pakistan had requested the UN to let Hafiz Saeed withdraw PKR 1,50,000 (approximately $900) to cover necessary basic living expenses for him and his family. Pakistan has thus been hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. Analysts say this is bound to continue. Noted Pakistani diplomatic-scholar, the Washington-based Husain Haqqani, has for some time argued that it suites Pakistan to remain on the grey list of the FATF, to hoodwink the world community.