Qari Saifullah Akhtar was freed in December after being injured in a US drone strike in tribal areas and taken into custody
By Declan Walsh in Islamabad
guardian.co.uk, Monday 10 January 2011
News of the release of a militant suspect emerged the day after protests in Karachi opposing changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
One of Pakistan‘s most infamous jihadi leaders, accused by Benazir Bhutto of trying to kill her, has been freed from custody due to a lack of evidence, the Punjab home minister, Rana Sanaullah, has confirmed.
Qari Saifullah Akhtar was freed in December, months after he was reportedly injured in a US drone strike in the tribal areas and taken into protective custody.
“He is a free man,” said Hashmat Habib, his lawyer in Islamabad. “There are no charges against him.”
News of the release of Akhtar, comes after at least 20,000 protesters filled a Karachi street yesterday, opposing any changes to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.
Their leaders voiced support for Mumtaz Qadri, the rogue policeman who killed Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer last Tuesday, over his support for reforms to the law.
In his latest court appearance today, Qadri repeated his previous confession but insisted he acted alone. Police are seeking a local preacher said to have spurred him on.
The 26-year-old appeared in court a day earlier than expected. His lawyer said the government wanted to outwit supporters who showered him with rose petals on previous occasions, embarrassing the government and underscoring the depth of divisions within Pakistani society.
Pope Benedict also weighed into the debate, calling on Pakistan to scrap blasphemy laws that, he said, were a pretext for “acts of injustice and violence”.
“The tragic murder of the governor of Punjab shows the urgent need to make progress in this direction,” he said at a meeting with western ambassadors in Rome.
“The particular influence of a given religion in a nation ought never to mean that citizens of another religion can be subject to discrimination in social life or, even worse, that violence against them can be tolerated.
“In this regard, it is important for inter-religious dialogue to favour a common commitment to recognising and promoting the religious freedom of each person and community,” the pope said.
The release of Akhtar, a shadowy figure with deep ties to the Pakistani intelligence establishment, highlights the difficulty courts face in prosecuting senior extremists, and their reluctance to do so.
Most cases go nowhere because police lack evidence, judges fear being killed, and decisions are thought to be influenced by the wishes of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which has historical ties with most militant groups.
Pakistani officials insist they cut ties with their jihadi clients after 2001 but the recent WikiLeaks files revealed US assertions that ISI still supports armed groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Afghan Taliban.
The Punjab minister Sanaullah, who confirmed Akhtar’s release to the Associated Press, had previously faced sharp criticism for his links to some Punjab-based militant and sectarian groups.
Akhtar’s lawyer, Habib, denied his client had been in ISI custody. “That’s an incorrect story given by some intelligence agency people. He doesn’t know anything,” he said.
Akhtar’s jihadist career spans the US-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the covert Pakistani campaign against Indian troops in Kashmir and the emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida in the 90s.
He was also part of a failed coup attempt against the then Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1996. After being arrested he was mysteriously released and fled to Afghanistan, where he allied with the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Osama bin Laden.
In 2008 Bhutto, through her posthumous book Reconciliation, accused Akhtar of plotting an attack on her supporters that killed over 130 people in October 2007. Akhtar was subsequently detained but no formal charges were brought, and he was released.
His latest release, which highlights the failure of the state to rein in prominent extremists, does not bode well for the trial of Qadri, who has become a hero figure to Pakistan’s conservatives.
Posters for Sunday’s rally singled out Sherry Rehman, a female parliamentarian from Karachi declared by one local preacher to be “wajib ul qatil” (deserving of death).
The declaration was made at the Sultan masjid, one of the city’s largest mosques, in the plush Defence neighbourhood. Local reports said the mosque is part-funded by the Saudi government.
Supporters said Rehman was locked into her Karachi home and was taking measures to increase her security.