Pakistani authorities have freed the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks on bail, officials said Friday, in a move furiously condemned by India and denounced by the United States and France.
Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, accused over the terror siege that left 166 dead, was released late on Thursday, according to an official at Adiyala Prison in Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad.
India slammed the release as an “insult” to the victims of the three-day onslaught on its financial capital, which was blamed on the banned Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The group’s charitable wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, confirmed Lakhvi’s release.
“Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi has been released from jail. He is free now and in a secure place,” a senior Jamaat-ud-Dawa official told AFP.
“We can’t say exactly where is he at the moment for security reasons.”
The release comes following nearly four months of wrangling over Lakhvi’s detention after a judge granted him bail in December, sparking an angry response from New Delhi.
Pakistan’s government slapped Lakhvi with a series of detention orders but judges repeatedly cancelled them.
On Thursday the Lahore High Court ordered his release, conditional on a two million rupee ($20,000) bond.
India has long seethed at Pakistan’s failure either to hand over or prosecute those accused of planning and organising the Mumbai attacks.
A spokesman for India’s home ministry, who asked not to be named, condemned Lakhvi’s release.
“This is a very disappointing announcement. An insult to the victims of the 26/11 Mumbai attack. The global community should take serious note of Pakistan’s double-speak on terrorism,” the spokesman said.
US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Washington was “gravely concerned” by Lakhvi’s release and had “communicated that concern to senior Pakistani officials over the course of many months and as recently as yesterday.”
“Terrorist attacks are an insult on the collective safety and security of all countries,” Rathke added.
In France, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting, President Francois Hollande spoke of his “indignation” at Lakhvi’s release.
In a speech in Paris on the first day of Modi’s visit, Hollande thanked the prime minister for his “solidarity” over the Islamist attacks in the French capital in January.
“In the same vein, I express to you my indignation each time that a terrorist is freed while he still has responsibility for an abominable act,” Hollande said.
– ‘Double game’ –
Delhi has long accused Islamabad of prevaricating over the trials, while Pakistan has alleged that India failed to give it crucial evidence.
After India reacted with outrage Friday, Pakistan foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam hit back, blaming Delhi for delaying the case.
“Inordinate delay in extending cooperation by India complicated the case and weakened the prosecution,” she said, adding that the ministry is still “confident” that justice will be served.
Lakhvi and six other suspects have been charged in Pakistan, but their cases have made virtually no progress in more than five years.
Lakhvi’s initial bail order in December prompted an angry response from Modi, who said it came as “a shock to all those who believe in humanity”.
Pakistani analyst Hasan Askari said he was at a loss to understand why the case had not been resolved and predicted a major spat with India.
“The government must settle this case once for all and face the international community,” he told AFP.
“It’s strange that this case has not been decided since 2009.”
The horror of the Mumbai carnage played out on live television around the world as commandos battled the heavily armed gunmen, who arrived by sea on the evening of November 26, 2008.
It took the authorities three days to regain full control of the city and New Delhi has long said there is evidence that “official agencies” in Pakistan were involved in plotting the attack.
Islamabad denies the charge but Jamaat-ud-Dawa, seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba and listed as a banned terror outfit by the United Nations, operates openly in the country.
Pakistan has long been accused of playing a “double game” with militants by supporting groups it thinks it can use for its own strategic ends, particularly in disputed Kashmir.
Pakistan and India both control part of Kashmir but claim the whole of the territory and have fought two of their three wars over it since independence from Britain in 1947.