Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed will soon walk free after a Pakistani judicial body on Wednesday ordered his release from house arrest, in a setback to India's efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
The banned head, who carries a bounty of $10 million announced by the United States for his role in terror activities, has been under detention since January this year.
Rejecting the government's plea to extend his detention for another three months, the Judicial Review Board of Punjab province comprising judges of the Lahore high court unanimously ordered Saeed's release on the completion of his 30-day house arrest which will expire on Thursday.
"The government is ordered to release JuD chief Hafiz Saeed if he is not wanted in any other case," said the board which was headed by Justice Abdul Sami Khan.
Saeed's counsel Advocate A K Dogar told PTI that his client will walk free on Thursday.
"The JuD chief was illegally detained for 297 days. Hafiz Saeed always worked for Pakistan and the government could not prove any allegation against him," he said.
The fire-brand cleric may walk out free if the government does not detain him in any other case.
Soon after the verdict, Saeed resorted to rhetoric and said all efforts by India have failed and he was released.
"It was not mine but Pakistan's case. Today, India faced embarrassment as it is proved that Pakistan is an independent country. I tell you... India can do no harm to me and Kashmir will soon get freedom," he said in a statement.
India has repeatedly asked Pakistan to re-investigate the Mumbai terror attack case and also demanded trial of Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba operations commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi in the light of evidence it had provided to Islamabad.
Before the board's decision, a federal finance ministry official appeared before it and submitted "some important evidence" against Saeed to justify his detention. The board, however, could not be convinced by his arguments.
The board had asked the ministry to explain how release of a single individual would affect the entire country.
Punjab Assistant Advocate General Sattar Sahil said the government law officer had presented had 'some important evidence' to justify detention of Saeed but all three members of the board unanimously rejected it and ordered his release.
Earlier, the home department of the Punjab government told the board that Pakistan might face sanctions from the international community if Saeed is released.
On January 31, Saeed and his four aides -- Abdullah Ubaid, Malik Zafar Iqbal, Abdul Rehman Abid and Qazi Kashif Hussain -- were detained by the Punjab government for 90 days under Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 and the Fourth Schedule of Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. However, the last two extensions were made on the 'public safety law'.
The board refused to give further extension to the detention of Saeed's aides. They were set free last month.
Earlier, the home department produced Saeed before the board and sought a three-month extension in his detention.
Dogar said he told the board that those four aides of Saeed it (board) had set free last month had not created any law and order situation in the country after their release as was being alleged by the home department.
"The same allegation the department has levelled against his client which is unfounded. Saeed has been placed under house arrest only to please the US and India," Dogar said and warned the government from detaining Saeed again in any other 'fake' case or charges.
"We will move the court without any delay if the government does not comply with the order of the judicial board and set him free tomorrow," he said.
Strict security arrangements were taken at the LHC premises during Saeed's appearance before the board. A large number of JuD workers also gathered on the court’s premises. Saeed's supporters chanted slogans in favour of their leader.
Welcoming the board's decision, JuD spokesman Yahya Mujahid said, "The friends of India are disappointed today."
Last month, the board had allowed 30-day extension to the detention of Saeed.
Meanwhile, a source in the Punjab government told PTI that Saeed may not walk out free as the government is mulling to detain him in another case.
"The government cannot afford to set Saeed free in the current circumstance. It cannot face international backlash in the event of releasing the JuD chief," the official source told PTI.
Under the law, the government can detain a person for up to three months under different charges but for extension to that detention it needs approval from a judicial review board.
Separately, the LHC on Wednesday held hearing on Saeed’s petition challenging his detention and adjourned the proceedings for December 6.
The JuD is believed to be the front organisation for the banned Lashkar-e-Tayiba which is responsible for carrying out the Mumbai attack.
Saeed was put under house arrest after Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 but he was freed by court in 2009.
Ten LeT militants killed 166 people and wounded dozens in Mumbai in November, 2008. Nine of the attackers were killed by police while lone survivor Ajmal Kasab was caught.
Kasab was executed after a court found him guilty and handed down death sentence.
Pak 'hoodwinking' global community: India on Saeed's release
Hafiz Saeed's release order the judicial body shows how Pakistan is "hoodwinking" the international community on the issue of terrorism, government sources said.
It is also reflective of Islamabad's "duplicity" in tackling terrorism, they said and asked Pakistan to "walk the talk" on its assurances to the international community over dismantling terror infrastructure and not allowing its soil to be used for terror acts.
Saeed's release may also coincide with the anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
"The release order only shows that Pakistan provides free space to terrorists to indulge in acts against other countries. And in case of Saeed, a designated terrorist, it also shows how Pakistan is hoodwinking the international
community on the issue of terrorism," a source said.
Pakistan keeps giving assurances to the international community that it is making all efforts to tackle terrorism but it never implement its assurances in reality and this (Saeed) is one example, another source asserted.
Saeed is terrorist leader designated by UN and US: Trump administration
Hafiz Saeed is a terrorist leader designated by both the United Nations and the United States, the Trump administration said hours after the court ordered his release from detention.
"The US is aware of media reports that Pakistan (court) ordered release of Lashkar-e-Tayiba leader Hafiz Saeed from house arrest," a State Department spokesperson told PTI when asked about the decision of the Judicial Review Board of Punjab province which refused to extend Saeed's detention.
Responding to a question, the State Department was quick to express its displeasure over the potential release of Saeed from house arrest.
In May 2008, the United States Department of the Treasury designated Saeed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224, the spokesperson said.
"Saeed was also individually designated by the United Nations under UNSCR 1267 (UN Security Council Resolution) in December 2008 following the November 2008 Mumbai attack," the official said.
LeT and several of its front organisations, leaders, and operatives remain under both State Department and Treasury Department sanctions, the State Department official noted.
"The US reiterates its stance that LeT is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent civilians in terrorist attacks, including a number of American citizens," the spokesperson told PTI.