Pakistani Court Grants Bail to Key Suspect in Mumbai Terror Attack

December 18, 2014
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Firefighters attend to a fire as it burns at Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel following an armed siege on November 29, 2008 in Mumbai, India. Indian officials have declared the siege at the Taj hotel over as the remaining militants were killed when commandos stormed the building. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Updated on 12/19/2014: A day after a court in Pakistan granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of seven men facing trial over the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, authorities in Pakistan announced that they would continue to detain him for an additional three months. In the face of criticism from officials in India — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who called the court’s decision a “huge shock” —  a Pakistani government prosecutor also announced plans to challenge the bail order. 

An alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, a three-day siege that left 166 people dead, has been granted bail by a court in Pakistan, sparking ire across India and fueling renewed criticism of Pakistan’s priorities in combating terrorism.

On Thursday, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was granted a $10,000 bail, according to his attorney, despite his suspected role as a senior figure in Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group behind the assault on Mumbai.

Lakhvi is one of seven men who have been on trial since 2009 over the attacks. He is believed to have played a central role in planning the coordinated strikes on the city’s Taj hotel, as well as a Jewish hostel and a train station.

Lakhvi’s attorney said there was no “substantial evidence” against his client, adding that, “this charge can’t prove he was involved in the Mumbai attack” or “that he was [a] commander” of the group.

The decision by an anti-terrorism court in the city of Rawalpindi came on the second of three days of national mourning in Pakistan following the Taliban attack on an army-run school that left 132 children dead this week. In the wake of the attack, Pakistan has promised a crackdown on militants, and the nation’s president, Nawaz Sharif, lifted a moratorium on the death penalty.

It’s against this backdrop that critics, particularly within India, have begun to lash out. At a press conference in Mumbai, Ujjwal Nikam, who in 2010 prosecuted one of the militants linked to the Mumbai attack, said the decision points to a clear double standard between how Pakistan treats Taliban militants who attack at home, and Lashkar militants who strike targets abroad.

“Does Pakistan not think of the Mumbai terror attack a big thing?” Nikam was quoted as asking by The Washington Post. Pakistan has “one policy to deal with Taliban’s terror,” he said, and “another when groups are targeting India.”

If the case against Lakhvi is to be seen as a gauge of Pakistan’s seriousness about confronting Lashkar militants, experts say it is not wholly surprising that he was allowed free on bail. Although the group was officially banned in 2002, for years Lashkar has been used as a proxy force against India in the two nations’ long-running dispute over Kashmir. Lashkar runs hospitals and schools throughout Pakistan, and the group’s training camps have churned out between 100,000 and 300,000 fighters, according to a 2013 study by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

The growing internal threat from the Taliban — underscored by this week’s attack on the school in Peshawar — may also mean that even symbolic gestures to crack down on Lashkar have become less of a priority within Pakistan. And the Taliban threat may only grow as Pakistan continues an offensive against the group in one of its last strongholds in North Waziristan.

“As Pakistan’s internal security continues to be so unstable, there’s not going to be an appetite to target another major terrorist organization that has a presence throughout the entire country, that has thousands of followers, that is well trained, that is disciplined and very capable,” said Tricia Bacon, a professor of justice, law and criminology at American University.

“It’s a Frankenstein situation,” said Bacon. “Now that [Lashkar] is as big as it is and as capable as it is, you can’t alienate it.”

The Mumbai attack was the focus of the 2011 FRONTLINE investigation, A Perfect Terrorist. You can watch the full film below:

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