Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, walked out of a Pakistani jail on Friday after a court ordered his release, a move that drew swift condemnation from India.
India reacted angrily to the development, saying the release of the operations chief of the banned terror group was an “insult” to victims of the Mumbai carnage.
Lakhvi was freed from the high-security Adiala Jail in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where he had been held since his arrest during an army raid on a LeT camp in Muzaffarabad about a week after the attacks on India’s financial hub that killed 166 and injured hundreds.
The Lahore High Court had ordered Lakhvi’s release on Thursday as the government was unable to convince it of the evidence linking him to the attacks.
There was jubilation in Jamaat-ud-Dawah circles over the release of Lakhvi. In a Friday prayer sermon, JuD chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed told supporters that the “government's hypocrisy had been exposed”. He promised a hero's welcome for Lakhvi, who is expected to reach the JuD headquarters outside Lahore over the weekend.
After an anti-terrorism court conducting the trial of seven men charged with involvement in the Mumbai attacks granted bail to 55-year-old Lakhvi in December, Pakistani authorities detained him four times under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) law.
But the orders to detain Lakhvi under the MPO were suspended by the Islamabad High Court and the Lahore High Court, making it virtually impossible for Pakistani authorities to hold him in prison any longer.
On Thursday, the Lahore High Court suspended Lakhvi’s detention and ordered his release on the payment of a Rs 2 million rupee ($20,000) bond. The court rejected the contention of authorities that Lakhvi was detained on the basis of secret information provided by intelligence agencies.
JuD supporters were present outside the jail to receive Lakhvi. About four to five vehicles reached Adiala Jail at around 1 pm and Lakhvi got into a car and left for his Islamabad residence.
"We have released Lakhvi after a member of his legal team presented the Lahore High Court order. There has been no direction from the government to either detain or release him," a jail official told PTI.
Lakhvi was free and “in a secure place", a senior JuD representative told AFP. "We can't say exactly where is he at the moment for security reasons," the representative claimed.
India had repeatedly expressed its concerns over the orders issued by Pakistani courts to free Lakhvi. Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit was even summoned to the external affairs ministry to convey these concerns, but Islamabad claimed the government could not interfere in the actions of the independent judiciary.
After the Lahore High Court issued the fresh order on Thursday to release Lakhvi, external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said the move would erode assurances made by Pakistan about tackling terrorism directed against India.
"Our concerns on this issue have been made known to the Government of Pakistan in the past. These shall be reiterated. The fact is that known terrorists not being effectively prosecuted constitutes a real security threat for India and the world. This also erodes the value of assurances repeatedly conveyed to us with regard to cross border terrorism," Akbaruddin said.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh described Lakhvi’s release as a disappointing development. He told reporters: “India wants talks with Pakistan but the present development is unfortunate and disappointing.”
A spokesman for India's home ministry, who asked not to be named, criticised Lakhvi's release. “This is a very disappointing announcement. An insult to the victims of the 26/11 Mumbai attack. The global community should take serious note of Pakistan's double-speak on terrorism," he said.
Lakhvi and six others were charged with planning, financing and executing the Mumbai attacks. He was initially granted bail by the anti-terrorism court on December 18 last year, two days after a Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar killed 132 children.
The attack triggered protests round the world, including in India, and the fact that Lakhvi was granted bail so soon after the atrocity forced the Pakistan government to detain the LeT commander under the MPO law.
Sambit Patra, a spokesman for the ruling BJP, noted that Pakistan did not appear to be prepared to deliver on its solemn pledges to tackle terrorism after the Peshawar school attack.
“Every Indian is disappointed with the decision to release Lakhvi and so is every sane mind in Pakistan…The Indian government will take a befitting step,” Patra said.
According to several reports, Lakhvi continued to guide the LeT’s operations even while he was in jail. He received up to 100 visitors a day in the rooms he shared with the other suspects in Adiala Jail and had unfettered access to mobile phones and the internet. In 2010, he fathered a child following conjugal visits to the prison by his youngest wife.