On July 14, Malik Ishaq, chief of the banned Sunni outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), that had kidnapped and murdered US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 walked free from after being granted bail by the Pakistan Supreme Court.
Ishaq had been arrested in 1997 for involvement in sectarian murders -- almost all of his victims were members of the minority Shia community in Pakistan. He was charged with murder of 70 people in 44 different cases, but escaped conviction in each case due to lack of evidence.
As he walked out to freedom, Malik Ishaq was garlanded and showered with rose petals by his supporters. Photographs published in all major newspapers in Pakistan showed a beaming Malik Ishaq inside a car, who went on to declare that he does not believe in terrorism and would work for the country.
LeJ, like the Taliban, is part of the broader Deoband movement. It was formed in 1996 with an objective of transforming Pakistan into a Sunni state, primarily through violent means. The entire LeJ leadership consists of Jehadis who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. A majority of its cadres are drawn from the numerous Sunni madrassas in Pakistan.
LeJ was banned in Pakistan in 2001 by President Pervez Musharraf’s regime. Two years later, LeJ was added to the list of terrorist organizations by the US. The then Secretary of State Colin Powell had accused LeJ of close links with the Al Qaeda, Taliban and of carrying out “numerous bus and church bombings.”
The outfit shares ideological as well as operational proximity with the Taliban. During the Taliban regime in Kabul, several of LeJ’s leaders and cadres found refuge in Afghanistan. The Taliban government, in spite of its close relationship with Pakistan, refused to hand them over to Pakistan.
Apart from the countless attacks on the Shia Muslims in Pakistan, LeJ was also involved in the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team playing in Pakistan. The outfit had planned to take the players hostage and bargain for the release of some of its detained members. Malik Ishaq was instrumental in finetuning the attack from his prison cell.
Bail given to Malik Ishaq was rather surprising. In an October 1997, Malik Ishaq in a media interview had boasted, “I have been instrumental in the killing of 102 human beings.” New revelations now suggest that Malik Ishaq even received a monthly stipend from the Punjab government during his imprisonment, at least since 2008. A minister from the Punjab province, which is home to Malik Ishaq and where the LeJ is most active, has confirmed the payment. The minister said that the payment was given to Ishaq’s family and not to him.
While the meager stipend amount might not have been delivered to the prisoner, Malik Ishaq did wield enormous clout, normally reserved for the high and the mighty in the South Asian context, inside the prison. In recognition of his proximity with the Taliban, on 10 October 2009 Pakistan army flew him to Rawalpindi in a chartered flight to negotiate with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) suicide attackers who had stormed its headquarters.
Bail granted to Malik Ishaq adds him to the list of a growing number of terrorist leaders belonging to organizations banned by the Pakistani government, who have dodged the judicial process and secured freedom for themselves. The list includes leaders like chief of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) Hafiz Saeed, chief of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the chief of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).
While the Pakistani authorities can argue that their freedom is sourced from judiciary decisions, such judgments invariably are results of poor investigation processes bordering on state complicity. These are results of a well-known state policy that sets apart terrorist formations on the basis of their utility to military and the intelligence. The same policy hunts down the Pakistani Taliban, while tactically exonerating the Afghan Taliban and its affiliates from the purview of the military operations.
The net result is that there are too many terrorist leaders roaming free on Pakistan’s streets. This makes the country’s claim of being sincere in fighting terrorism sound utterly decrepit.
Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is an independent analyst based in Singapore and has previously been Deputy Director, India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and a Fellow (Counter-Insurgency Studies) at the Takshashila Institution. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BibhuRoutray