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Pakistani security personnel escort Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi (C), alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, as he leaves the court in Islamabad on December 30, 2014 (Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Solidifying hostilities

Gabriel Domínguez
April 13, 2015

The release on bail of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the main suspect in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, has prompted angry reactions in India. But how will this impact the already strained bilateral ties? DW examines the case.


In a controversial move, a Pakistani court recently freed on bail Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind behind the 2008 militant assault on India's financial capital Mumbai.

The 55-year-old, who still faces trial along with six other suspects, walked out of a jail in the Pakistani garrison town of Rawalpindi on April 9, after being in government custody since 2009. He is scheduled to attend a court hearing this Wednesday, April 15.

The alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist is accused of planning the attacks on the Taj hotel, a Jewish hostel, and a train station. The Mumbai attacks, a three-day siege that left more than 160 people dead, seriously damaged the already strained ties between the nuclear-armed neighbors - Pakistan and India.

Lakhvi had been granted a $10,000 bail in December, but Pakistan decided to detain him for further three months, following massive criticism from India, which has repeatedly pressured Islamabad to actively pursue the case.

But last Thursday, the Lahore High Court declared the detention illegal and again ordered his release, prompting strong criticism from New Delhi, Washington and Paris.

A spokesman for India's Ministry for External Affairs said the move had reinforced the perception that Pakistan "has a dual policy on dealing with terrorists," adding that, "those who have carried out attacks or are posing a threat to India are being dealt with differently and this is a most negative development in so far as bilateral ties are concerned."

The US State Department also expressed grave concerns about the release and France's President Francois Hollande described the move as "shocking."

However, Pakistan's foreign ministry rejected the accusations and blamed New Delhi for the development, saying that "inordinate delay" by India in extending cooperation "complicated Lakhvi's case and weakened the prosecution."

'No political will'

But Lakhvi's release comes as no surprise to many experts, who argue that while Lakhvi was ultimately released on bail due to a legal technicality, the more likely reason behind the move is that people in high places in Pakistan simply do not want him in jail any more.

Vikram Sood, who headed the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's foreign intelligence service, from 2001 to March 2003, told DW that the mere fact that the case were to figure in a Pakistani court for trial would mean an admission in the eyes of the military that Pakistan was involved in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks as alleged by India.

"They wouldn't want the case to be heard in any court in Pakistan, ever. Therefore, it is more likely that the court was nudged towards this decision," said Sood, adding that there may be a tussle between the civilian leadership of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - who is seeking a better relationship with India - and the army - which is not keen on any concessions to India.

Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, shares this view: "The bottom line is that there is not enough political will or influence in Pakistan to do all that is necessary to keep Lakhvi behind bars."

Pakistan Indien Anschläge von Mumbai Taj Hotel
The Mumbai attacks left more than 160 people deadImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Special privileges

The analyst says that while Pakistan has vowed to cooperate with India in bringing those involved in the attack to justice, Islamabad hasn't really offered much support. "They have carried out arrests and contended they would let the legal process play out, but it all ends there," he told DW, pointing out that Lakhvi has been released each time he has been arrested.

Then there is Hafiz Saeed, the supreme leader of the LeT, who to the distress of India, walks free in the Pakistani city of Lahore, the expert said.

Many concerns have also been raised about the court proceedings in this case which have been conducted behind closed doors. In a recent article, Hindustan Times journalist Rezaul H. Laskar pointed out that in the six years since the trial began, the presiding judge has been changed eight times, with each change necessitating delays as the new judge acquainted himself with the details of the case.

And in at least one case, a judge asked to be taken off the case because of threats to his life from extremist elements.

Moreover, Lakhvi and the other suspects have also been defended by some of the most expensive lawyers in the country, said Laskar. "At one point of time, the suspects were being defended by a former advocate general of Punjab province who was also the counsel for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's family in a string of graft cases."

A recently published report also revealed that the terror suspect had been receiving "special treatment" during his time in prison. The BBC quoted jail officers saying that Lakhvi, along with six of his comrades, had several rooms at their disposal.

"They had access to a television, mobile phones and the Internet, as well as dozens of visitors a day. These privileges had allowed him to remain in effective contact with the LeT rank and file," the officials told the broadcaster.

ISI support?

India has long stated that the LeT is supported by Pakistan's military and its spy agency, the ISI - a claim Islamabad denies. But as Gauri Khandekar, head of the Asia Program at the European think tank FRIDE, points out there seem to be indications of potential ISI involvement.

"David Headley, a Pakistani-American who was convicted of scouting targets in Mumbai ahead of the attacks, gave two names - Sameer Ali as a major in the ISI who had recruited him and Sajid Mir as a man handling foreign recruits for the LeT - to a Chicago court as helping mount the operation," Khandekar told DW.

Moreover, the voice overheard issuing instructions or encouragement to the ten terrorists during the Mumbai attacks is believed to be that of Lakhvi.

Khandekar says that both the Pakistani army and the ISI view Lakhvi as an important person in their stance against India. In light of this, the analyst expressed doubts that Lakhvi would face trial, let alone be convicted. "Lakhvi is simply a crucial pawn in a very elaborate structure which includes many elements of Pakistan's official apparatus. He is someone which they cannot afford to lose, and certainly not because India wants this to happen."

Analyst Kugelman shares this view, saying that quite a few highly influential people in Pakistan are keen on preventing Lakhvi from doing time. "This includes the security establishment, and specifically, the ISI, which has long regarded Lakhvi's employer as a critical strategic asset because of its virulently anti-India position."

In this context, Dr Gareth Price, senior analyst at the Asia Program at Chatham House, argues that rather than an actual trial, the ISI and others would prefer Lakhvi and others to be kept incommunicado under house arrest - as was the case with Pakistan's nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Pakistan - Premierminster Nawaz Sharif
Prime Minister Sharif is seeking a better relationship with IndiaImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Hostility and mistrust

So what does this mean for Indo-Pakistani ties? Analysts agree Lakhvi's recent release will only further strain bilateral ties. "This latest incident will only solidify the hostility and mistrust that contaminate India-Pakistan relations," said Kugelman.

India has always insisted that justice for the Mumbai attack organizers be a precondition for reconciliation - or talks toward reconciliation - with Pakistan.

In the same way, Pakistan has often insisted on the precondition of the status of Kashmir being reexamined. Neither side has budged on these demands, and in all likelihood, neither will for the foreseeable future.

As a result, experts believe the bilateral relationship will remain in a form of paralysis for quite some time. "There have been ups and downs in the relationship over the past seven years - but while an improvement remains possible, prosecuting the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks remains a priority for India," said analyst Price.

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