Mumbai 'mastermind' detained by Pakistan

Posted in India , Pakistan | 22-Sep-09 | Author: Andrew Buncombe and Omar Warai| Source: The Independent

Pakistani police escort Hafiz Saeed outside a court in Lahore in May, 2009.

Just days ahead of a crucial meeting between India and Pakistan that could pave the way for the resumption of stalled peace talks, police in Lahore have placed under house arrest the man accused of masterminding last year's Mumbai attacks.

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was prevented from leaving his home to attend Eid celebrations marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. "We have verbal orders from the government to restrict his movement," police official Sohail Sukhera told reporters. Though Pakistan said Mr Saeed's detention was linked to allegations that he illegally held a fundraising event for a banned charity, the decision to place him under house arrest highlights his importance as a negotiating chip as the two countries prepare to hold high-level talks this weekend in New York.

India suspended the so-called "composite dialogue" in the aftermath of last November's attacks when more than 165 people were killed. Ever since, it has made clear that the prosecution of those responsible is a precondition for the resumption of peace talks.

Pakistan has already brought seven people suspected of involvement in the attacks before closed-door, pretrial hearings at a court in a maximum security prison in Rawalpindi and has said they will be charged this week. However, interior minister Rehman Malik, said the evidence against him presented by India would not stand up in court. Mr Malik said: "We arrest the accused only if we have evidence. I assure you, and I assure my Indian counterpart, that if there is evidence against [Saeed] during our investigation... he will not get out of the clutches of law."

For India, the prosecution of Mr Saeed - long said to have links to Pakistan's ISI spy agency - has become a litmus test of the Pakistan government's willingness to confront extremism. While Delhi made warm noises earlier this year when Pakistan took the decision to drive the Taliban from the Swat Valley, it still demands action against the LeT founder.

"I think we have marshalled almost grade one evidence," M K Narayanan, India's national security adviser, told the CNN-IBN news channel. "I agree, one can never be sure what a court would do with that kind of evidence. But if you are not willing... [to] test that, it leaves in our mind a big question mark as to where Pakistan stands on terrorism." India's home minister, P Chidambaram, urged Pakistan to interrogate the LeT leader. "His role in the [Mumbai attack] must be investigated. The evidence is not on Indian soil [it] is on Pakistan's soil," he said.

Pakistan is keen for stalled talks between the neighbours to resume as soon as possible, though it has sought to "de-link" such dialogue from progress on bringing the perpetrators of Mumbai to justice. For the civilian government in Islamabad, resuming talks with India is part of a new foreign policy that aims to strengthen ties with Pakistan's neighbours and relieve a sense of regional isolation.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has just signalled that a return to "back-channel diplomacy", as pursued during former president, General Pervez Musharraf's rule, was in prospect and named a retired senior diplomat as his country's possible interlocutor. Mr Qureshi will meet his Indian counterpart in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week to discuss issues of friction including Kashmir. Speaking to The Independent in London he said India would merely strengthen the hands of terrorists if it refused to unfreeze the dialogue. "We want to move forward. When Mumbai happened, we condemned it immediately. It was sad, tragic and should not have taken place. But terrorism also threatens us on a continual basis and the only way we can move is if we move together".

Pakistan says both countries have much to gain in terms of trade between the nuclear-armed rivals. There is also political consensus within Pakistan on peace, with all major parties nodding their assent. But such advances have already encountered major obstacles. The powerful military establishment has evinced signs of resistance in recent months.

For the army, India remains the principal enemy and is wary of its growing influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan's pro-peace camp has also been critical of what is perceived to be Indian obstinance. To many, President Asif Ali Zardari's overtures to Delhi, including an offer to stand down first-strike nuclear capability, appear to have been repeatedly rebuffed.