A top Pakistani official has confirmed that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar has been placed in “protective custody” while investigation agencies try to verify information provided by India about his alleged links to the Pathankot attack.
Rana Sanaullah, the law minister of Punjab province and a top leader of the PML-N party, made the revelation during a television talk show on Thursday night. He said that authorities had sealed two madrassas linked to JeM though none of the offices of the banned group have been closed.
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,” he said.
“So were holding on to (Azhar) for now, so that we can arrest him if necessary in this case,” he added.
Till now, the foreign ministries of both countries had said there was no information about the arrest or detention of Azhar.
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”.
“There were two madrassas – one in Bahawalpur that was being run by the brother of Masood Azhar, the chief of the banned JeM, and another in Sialkot. We have sealed them because of a suspicion of links with the JeM,” he added.
India says the six terrorists who attacked the airbase in Pathankot in Punjab on January 2, killing seven security personnel, were Pakistanis linked to the JeM.
There were reports of raids in parts of Punjab as the federal government continued its crackdown on the JeM.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated his vow to fight terrorism in all its forms. He told a gathering of businessmen in Islamabad that if Pakistan did not fight against all forms of terrorism, it could not emerge as a progressive and democratic country.
At the same time, there are differences between the political and military leadership over a proposed anti-terror operation that the government wants to start in Punjab. The army wants the operation to be conducted by the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers, which has been active in the raids on JeM seminaries, while the Punjab government wants its own anti-terrorist force to deal with the problem.
The sensitivities linked to the issue were also reflected in some comments made by Sanaullah, who said people were aware of the stance and activities of the JeM and other banned groups but “we should not talk too much about them because of their links to the Kashmir issue”.
“For 65 years, successive governments have had the consistent view that what is going on in Kashmir is jihad...and no one can deny that people from Pakistan went (to Kashmir). If the Pakistan state policy now is that terrorism cannot be allowed from anywhere on its soil, that is a good policy with which we can face the world,” Sanaullah said.
Pakistan is also 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 activists.
Officials said the JeM has already approached the Lahore high court for the release of its members through lawyers. Masood 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.
The Pakistani media has welcomed the action against the JeM, with editorials in some newspapers insisting that the net should be widened to include many other militant groups that are operating in the country with official patronage.
The Express Tribune commented on Friday that the much-delayed National Action Plan, or the government’s anti-terrorism strategy, may finally be implemented following the action against the JeM.