An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced hardline Islamist cleric Hafiz Mohammad Saeed to 11 years in jail for financing terrorist operations.
The man accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed 161 people is to serve two five-and-a-half prison terms concurrently.
Saeed has been wanted by India for years, and is designated as a global terrorist by both the UN and the US, which has a $10m bounty on his head. He’s the founder of one of Pakistan’s largest militant groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
So why has it taken so long to put him behind bars – and will he stay there? The answer is complicated, not least by the fact that Saeed is widely known to have close links with the Pakistani military.
Why punish him now?
The answer may lie in Pakistan’s growing international isolation since the mid-2000s, its worsening economic woes and more recently a threat of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international terror financing and money laundering watchdog.
Significantly, Saeed’s conviction comes a week before the Paris-based FATF discusses Pakistan’s progress in curbing terror financing.
Pakistan, which has long denied supporting militants to further its foreign policy goals, is already in financial dire straits.
Mostly ruled by its military, whether directly or indirectly, since its independence in 1947, the country has heavily depended on American and Middle Eastern aid to sustain itself as a viable state.
Experts believe that if Pakistan continues to fail to satisfy the FATF and is downgraded to its blacklist, there could be serious financial and diplomatic implications, including an impact on a bailout it’s getting from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
India is watching events closely. The US State Department called the conviction of Saeed a “step forward”.
What has Pakistan been doing to curb militants?
In June 2018, FATF moved Pakistan to its “grey” list of countries – those that are found to be non-compliant on money laundering and terror financing standards.
Over the subsequent months, in order to avoid international sanctions, Pakistan moved to arrest scores of terror suspects and sealed or took over hundreds of properties linked to banned groups.
But many saw these actions as just meant for optics, with no serious action visible against major militant groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).
The pressure kept rising, and in April 2019, the government proscribed half a dozen organisations linked to the JuD and another group, the Markaz Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDwI).
Hafiz Saeed’s conviction was for owning properties linked to banned organisations such as JuD and MDwI.
He was arrested last July, three months before FATF’s scheduled review of whether Pakistan was complying with its action plan.
In that review, held in October, Pakistan was found lacking on several counts, but a decision on whether to downgrade it was put off until the next review, which is expected next week.
Saeed was indicted in December, and the trial concluded in less than two months, which must be a record of sorts for Pakistan.
But given his close links with the Pakistani security establishment, many question if he will be really abandoned by the Pakistani establishment, made to serve a full sentence and condemned to the life of a convicted criminal.
Is this the first time he has been arrested?
Pakistan has arrested him several times since the 9/11 attacks in the US, but it never charged him with specific offences and always set him free in the end.
He was put under house arrest on a number of occasions, first when the Indian government blamed him for masterminding the December 2001 attack on its parliament, and then after the Mumbai train bombings of 2006.
He was also put under house arrest several times between 2008 and 2009 following accusations that the LeT had carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
On each of these occasions, the Pakistani government did not frame charges against him. Instead, it continued to file for extensions of his house arrest which the courts would ultimately refuse, setting him free.
Whether this time will be different, or if it is enough to satisfy the FATF remains to be seen.
What is Saeed’s background?
He set up MDwI jointly with a Pakistan-based Saudi Salafist leader Abdullah Uzzam in 1987, when the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was nearing its end.
The group spawned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), allegedly with help from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, to move a major portion of Islamist jihadis from Afghanistan to fight against Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.
It is widely believed the LeT was instrumental in neutralising the secular, pro-independence rhetoric of the Kashmiri leadership which had shaped the region’s first popular uprising against Indian rule in 1988, and turned it into a pro-Pakistan Islamist campaign.
At the same time, analysts believe, it continued to provide tactical and ideological support to Islamist factions that prevented post-Soviet Afghanistan from stabilising.