More than 30 Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operatives, including their leader, Masood Azhar, are in protective custody of the Punjab government but there is no official word on their arrest, local media has reported.
On Thursday, Rana Sanaullah, the law minister of Punjab province and a top leader of the PML-N party, conceded during a television talk show that Azhar and his associates were in “protective custody” after the foreign office spokesperson had informed in his weekly press briefing that he had no news of the arrest.
Law experts have insisted that the confusion is being intentionally created by the government so that Azhar does not get to be released through the local courts. “The idea is not to officially acknowledge that he is in custody,” said one official.
The fate of the JeM operatives depends on the outcome of the visit by Pakistani law enforcers to Pathankot, where they expect to be given evidence under which warrants of arrest can be issued.
“Masood Azhar has been taken into protective custody by the counter-terrorism force. This has been done so that if the information (provided by India) on the Pathankot incident is developed by our agencies, then the people connected to the incident can be arrested in that case,” Sanaullah said.
“So were holding on to (Azhar) for now, so that we can arrest him if necessary in this case,” he added.
Sanaullah, who has himself been accused of having close links to radical groups in the past, further said authorities had not sealed offices of any organisations or “caught anyone”.
On Friday, the local law enforcement authorities claimed to have closed more seminaries of the JeM located in Sialkot and other parts of Punjab province. However, seminaries run by the JeM in Karachi and other parts of the country remain untouched.
In the meantime, Pakistan is finalising the team it intends to send to Pathankot to collect evidence so that a comprehensive charge-sheet can be presented in Pakistani courts to formally detain JeM operatives.
Officials said the JeM has already approached the Lahore high court for the release of its members through lawyers. Azhar, in a message to the local media, did not comment on whether his group was involved in the Pathankot attack but insisted his detention was unlawful.
“If the Pakistani authorities are unable to give enough evidence, it is feared that the courts will set Azhar free as they did in the case of (Lashkar-e-Taiba commander) Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi,” said Kamil Mir, a Lahore-based lawyer.