An Islamabad court granted bail on Thursday to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi , a lynchpin of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, sparking fury in India and underlining fears that the Pakistan establishment will let the trial die a quiet death.
The respite for the man who plotted the deaths of 166 people in India's financial capital comes a day after the Nawaz Sharif government vowed to start hanging those found guilty of terror and lifted the moratorium on death penalty in terror-related cases.
The bail made Sharif’s announcement of zero concession to terrorists look like an empty promise to soothe a nation mourning the massacre of 148 people , mostly schoolchildren, in Peshawar on Tuesday.
“The establishment wants to secure its assets ahead of any possible move towards having them hanged," said journalist Abid Hussain amid reports the Pakistani government has prepared a list of convicted terrorists on death row to be hanged in a fortnight.
Lakhvi was a senior member of the Lashkar hierarchy, second only to 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed. He was arrested in December 2008, soon after the serial attacks rocked Mumbai.
Lakhvi and six others had filed bail applications on Wednesday even as lawyers were on strike condemning the terrorist attack on an army-run school in Peshawar.
Lakhvi's lawyer told reporters in Islamabad his client was given bail due to lack of evidence even though Ajmal Kasab, one of the 10 terrorists who came to Mumbai from Karachi via the sea route, conspirators David Coleman Headley and Abu Jundal gave graphic details of Lakhvi's exact role.
According to the prosecution, the anti-terrorism court in Pakistan gave bail to Lakhvi despite enough evidence against, PTI reported.
"As the trial was near conclusion the Anti-Terrorism Court Islamabad Thursday granted bail to Lakhvi despite evidence against him," prosecution chief Chaudhry Azhar said.
The news agency reported that a Pakistani interior ministry spokesperson said the
government would certainly file an appeal
against the trial court's decision.
"We have a strong case against the seven accused of the Mumbai terror attacks and we challenge Lakhvi's bail in the high court," said the official who requested anonymity.
The outrage in India following Lakhvi’s bail underscored its deep distrust of Pakistan’s judiciary. “Pakistan is not serious about ensuring justice … the case should be handed over to India,” said Smita Salaskar, wife of Mumbai cop Vijay Salaskar who died in the ghastly siege.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh said the court’s decision was unfortunate because India has provided more than enough evidence to nail Lakhvi. “Hope the Pakistani government will appeal in a higher court to cancel his bail.”
The foreign ministry was more scathing in its reaction, saying it was unacceptable to see a UN-designated terrorist walk out of jail. “It will serve as a reassurance to terrorists who perpetrate heinous crimes.”
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, a former junior minister in the foreign ministry, said the Lakhvi case was proof that Pakistan has not learnt any lesson from the Peshawar carnage.
Lakhvi was arrested in Pakistan in December 2008 and lodged in a Rawalpindi prison since his indictment next year. But the failure to advance the trial over the past five years stoked fears Pakistan was trying to stonewall the case citing inadequate evidence.
The trial of Lakhvi, who is among seven Pakistani nationals accused of planning and abetting the brazen attack on Mumbai in 2008, has never taken off in right earnest. Most court sittings were consistently adjourned on one pretext or another.
In April this year, it came to a standstill because the judge feared for his life following the murder of special prosecutor Chaudhry Zulfiqar. “The judiciary was wary because followers of the Lashkar-e-Taiba often assemble in the courtroom in large numbers,” said Sartaj Aziz, foreign and security adviser to Sharif.
Zulfiqar’s successor let the trail go cold because he was apparently too busy with the Benazir Bhutto assassination case.
A lawyer who dissociated himself from the case said the dossier provided by India was not admissible evidence under Pakistani law, contravening reports from investigators that they have found substantial proof to connect the LeT to the Mumbai terror attack.
At the time, the Pakistani chargesheet stated that “there are sufficient oral, documentary, circumstantial and scientific evidence linking the accused with planning, preparation and execution of the attacks”.
(With inputs from HT correspondents and agencies)