ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani court on Tuesday freed the leader of an Islamic militant group that's been blamed for the devastating terrorist assault last year on Mumbai, India, a move that's likely to damage the prospects of peace between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
The court decided to release Hafiz Saeed, the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, from the house arrest that he'd been under since the attack in November 2008. Tensions between India and Pakistan have hampered the fight against Taliban extremists in western Pakistan and Afghanistan while Islamabad focused instead on its eastern border with India.
The United Nations banned Saeed's group in the wake of the terrorist strike, in which 166 people died. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, regarded as a cover for the previously outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba extremist outfit, is thought to be linked to al Qaida.
The court ruled that Tuesday there weren't "sufficient grounds" for keeping Saeed in detention. The basis of his confinement, under a law allowing preventative detention, was always murky, and part of the hearing was behind closed doors. The government's lawyer reportedly presented evidence for Lashkar-e-Taiba's ties to al Qaida during the secret part of the case.
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Delivering its ruling, the High Court of the eastern city of Lahore, the top court in Saeed's home province of Punjab, said that the U.N. ban on Jamaat-ud-Dawa didn't require the detention of its leader.
"The major (government) argument was pro-American, pro-U.N. and anti-Pakistan," said A.K. Dogar, Saeed's lawyer. "This is a free country, (but) day in, day out, the Americans are ordering us about."
The court's decision will dent Pakistan's image as an anti-terrorism ally, which was boosted recently by its decisive battles with Taliban guerrillas in the Swat valley, in the northwest of the country.
The government is likely to appeal the verdict.
"We don't know if there was no evidence or the government wouldn't put forward the evidence," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in Lahore. Noting that Lashkar-e-Taiba was closely linked with the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's premier spy agency, he added: "If they bring all the evidence, ISI gets exposed. If they go back to the earlier years, the Pakistani state gets exposed."
Saeed founded Lashkar-e-Taiba in the late 1980s, with the ISI's backing, to fight India in the Kashmir region, which is disputed land between the countries. Pakistan now claims to have stopped backing fighters in Kashmir. After Lashkar-e-Taiba was banned in 2002, Jamaat-ud-Dawa emerged as its new identity.
"We are unhappy that Pakistan does not show the degree of seriousness and commitment that it should to bring to justice the perpetrators of the crime," India's home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said in New Delhi.
Although India has blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for the Mumbai assault, the dossier of evidence it handed to Pakistan provided no direct link between the attack and Saeed. He's denied any involvement.
Separately, Pakistan is prosecuting five less senior members of Lashkar-e-Taiba for their alleged role in the Mumbai carnage in an anti-terrorism court, but the proceedings are secret.
A spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, Abdul Basit, said: "Polemics and unfounded insinuations cannot advance the cause of justice in civilized societies. Legal processes cannot and must not be interfered with."
India broke off a four-year process of peace talks after the Mumbai attack. It had been hoped that, after the results of elections last month in India, moves might begin toward resuming dialogue.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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