Bounty blunder

Published : May 04, 2012 00:00 IST

The U.S.' announcement of a bounty on Hafiz Saeed's head actually draws him back into the public domain.

in Islamabad

UNDER normal circumstances, anyone with a $10-million bounty on his head would have scurried for cover. But the decision of the United States to put Jama'at-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed on its most wanted list, with a hefty reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction, actually drew him further out into the public domain. So, while India preened over the U.S. putting Saeed on the second rung of its Rewards for Justice list, the man himself used it to good effect, not just to heap ridicule on Washington but also to build his own profile.

The day after the U.S. announced the award of all places, in India Saeed was on at least four television news channels on prime time, using each as his pulpit to allege that it was another India-U.S. ploy to malign Pakistan and wondering why a bounty should be announced for someone whose whereabouts were known to everyone.

Though Saeed had been inching back into the public domain since November, when he along with some other religious right-wing leaders cobbled together the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council, or the DPC) to protest against the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) attack on the Pakistani military outpost Salala along the border with Afghanistan, he still maintained a low profile, keeping public and television appearances to the bare minimum.

In fact, until the DPC was formed, he rarely came to the federal capital, and appearances on television were mainly through voice-overs. This has been the case since he was released under instructions from the court after he was detained for his alleged role in the Mumbai terror attacks. But the bounty announcement put the JuD on the offensive and Saeed followed up his television appearances on day one with a press conference in Rawalpindi the very next day.

Had it not been for the restraining orders that prevent him from entering Islamabad following his active role in the DPC rallies the press conference could well have been organised in the federal capital. But the venue was close enough; in fact, it could not have been closer to the real seat of power as Rawalpindi is where the powerful Pakistan Army is headquartered. And, the hotel picked for the press conference was the colonial vintage Flashman's, now run by the government-owned Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation.

The choice of venue was as clear an indication as any that Saeed, the JuD and fellow-travellers in the DPC including the father of the Taliban and head of its alma mater, the Darul Uloom Haqqani, Maulana Sami ul Haq were confident that the government was not going to throw him behind bars in a hurry. Brimming with confidence, Saeed suggested that the U.S. give him the bounty as he could tell the Americans exactly where to come looking for him.

The JuD and the DPC were not alone in questioning the rationale of the bounty for a man whose whereabouts were known. The Pakistani media not just the rabble-rousing segments but even those who have been questioning the security establishment's links with such outfits pointed out the contradiction in the bounty and how it was proving to be counterproductive. Liberal sections of Pakistani society who have been particularly vocal against the DPC also began lamenting over the U.S. move because, as they saw it, it was clearly backfiring. The DPC rallies had begun losing momentum and the Saeed bounty only breathed new life into them.

The timing could not have been worse, lamented none other than Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, for it came just when the various political parties in Parliament were trying to find a low-political-cost way of framing new terms of engagement with the U.S. Given the high tide in anti-Americanism, no political party right now wants to be seen as advocating re-engagement with the U.S. and restoration of the NATO supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Addressing the joint session of Parliament working out the terms of re-engagement with the U.S., Gilani said it was unfortunate that the U.S. should have announced the bounty at this juncture. Such negative messages will increase the trust deficit at a time when Parliament is engaged in framing new rules of engagement with the U.S.

But even before the Prime Minister spoke, the U.S. had to clarify that the bounty was not for locating Saeed but for actionable evidence that can withstand legal scrutiny. The State Department briefing on April 4 was an admission that there was intelligence, but no information that could be used against him in court.

This was just the kind of vindication that Pakistan was looking for. Whenever this issue was flagged by either the U.S. or India, Pakistan's stock response was that it did not have concrete evidence about Saeed's terror links in general and involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks in particular to prosecute him. There is nothing concrete and maintainable. From its own Mumbai trial experience, India knows well that hearsay cannot substitute for hard evidence. It is only the latter that can withstand judicial scrutiny, was the Foreign Office response to External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna's statement that India had given Pakistan every detail of Saeed's involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks.

The lawyer A.K. Dogar, who has been tasked by the JuD to seek protection for Saeed through the courts, further pointed out: Do not forget that he was detained after the Mumbai terror attacks and acquitted by the full Bench of the Lahore High Court. The federal government and the Government of Punjab appealed against this verdict but the Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

Saeed is not the only alleged terrorist to have been let off by the courts for want of evidence. For one, there is a genuine lack of capacity in the police, which is both ill-equipped and over-stretched. Also, there is still no clear indication from the security establishment that it has given up using certain groups as strategic assets, as a result of which the police are often wary of digging too deep and far for fear of stepping on certain toes.

The net result is that the prosecution invariably has a weak case. This is compounded by the mood in the court as supporters of these outfits loom large over the process. A stark example of the conditions in which judges work is the case of the judge of the Anti-Terrorism Court, Pervez Ali Shah, who sentenced to death the assassin of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Threatened, he had to flee the country.

The contention of India and the U.S. is that statements of Ajmal Kasab the lone terrorist nabbed alive in the Mumbai terror attacks and the Headley investigations threw up information that Saeed conspired with various Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives to stage the attacks. However, none of the co-conspirators has been arrested by Pakistan. Also, according to India, it had given eight phone-tap CDs to Pakistan, asking if the voice in them was Saeed's. Pakistan has not responded, on the plea that collecting voice samples without permission was not permissible under law.

Similarly, all the dossiers given by New Delhi to Islamabad are claimed to be of little use by Pakistan, but India's contention is that these are leads based on which Islamabad should gather legally admissible evidence. One of the dossiers was exclusively on Saeed, and the then National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, described it as grade-I evidence.

Moreover, though Pakistan claimed that the JuD had been banned, the federal government failed to produce the notification proscribing the outfit, which claims to be a charitable institution though it is widely believed to be a reincarnate of the LeT. The JuD has also challenged the United Nations' listing of Saeed as a terrorist. He has denied any links with Al Qaeda and the Lashkar, denounced the Mumbai attacks, and time and again offered to present himself before any international court to state his case.

Not that being banned makes much of a difference, given the manner in which other organisations, like the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), put in an appearance every time the street power of such outfits needs to be unleashed to whip up passions against India or the U.S. When Pakistan first proposed granting Most Favoured Nation status to India, JeM activists were back in action protesting against the move at Abpara, the headquarters of the feared Inter-Services Intelligence.

Restraining orders

In fact, the restraining orders on Saeed, which prevent him from entering Islamabad, were issued only recently, and that, too, because the diplomatic community had begun expressing concern over the freedom with which he was moving around the country addressing rallies under the DPC banner and fanning animosity towards the U.S. and India.

Given the timing of the bounty announcement exactly a day after Pakistan announced that President Asif Ali Zardari would be going to India on April 8 on a private visit there was considerable apprehension that the U.S. move would spoil the atmospherics created by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's luncheon invitation to him. Some conspiracy theorists even suggested that this was yet another indication that the U.S. for all its lip service to regional peace wanted to keep the hostilities between the two countries alive because that was beneficial to the powerful weapons lobby.

As expected, Manmohan Singh made it clear that New Delhi expected Islamabad to prosecute Saeed. But the Prime Minister's remark that he would be happy to visit Pakistan at a mutually convenient date was widely welcomed by the Pakistani media. Though External Affairs Ministry sources continued with the line the Premier took in Seoul in March that there needs to be some tangible progress for him to be able to visit Pakistan, the Pakistani media found in Manmohan Singh's unconditional acceptance of the invitation the kind of leeway Islamabad was hoping for from India. Even the usually India-baiting The Nation chose not to highlight what is often described as India's Hafiz Saeed fixation and instead headlined with Slow but sure Pakistan, India move forward.

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