U.S. sharpens criticism of Pakistan over alleged terror leader Hafiz Saeed

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Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of the banned Islamic charity Jamat-ud-Dawa, looks over the crowed as they end a “Kashmir Caravan” from Lahore with a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Caren Firouz/Files

The U.S. escalated its criticism of Pakistan’s decision to set free the alleged mastermind of the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai, with the White House warning that the move may damage bilateral relations.

Hafiz Saeed, who allegedly planned attacks that left 164 people dead, had been detained at his house in Lahore without charges since January. A Pakistan High Court had ordered his release, and police withdrew from the home after midnight Friday, his spokesman Habibullah Qamar said in a text message.

U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded that Pakistani leaders take tougher action against terrorists.

Given that, Saeed’s release “sends a deeply troubling message about Pakistan’s commitment to combating international terrorism and belies Pakistani claims that it will not provide sanctuary for terrorists on its soil,” the White House said in an emailed statement on Saturday.

If Pakistan doesn’t detain and charge Saeed, “its inaction will have repercussions for bilateral relations and for Pakistan’s global reputation,” the White House said in its statement. “The release of Saeed is a step in the wrong direction.”

The statement builds on a comment Friday by State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert that “the United States is deeply concerned” that Saeed has been released from house arrest. Nauert said Saeed leads Lashkar-e-Taiba, “a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent civilians in terrorist attacks, including a number of American citizens.”

Saeed has consistently denied any involvement in the Mumbai attacks. He heads Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which the U.S. says is a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba. A United Nations Security Council panel placed sanctions on four alleged members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, including Saeed, in 2008 at the request of the U.S. and India.

Saeed’s detention in Lahore since January was initially interpreted as an attempt to placate the U.S., which has taken a tougher tone on Pakistan under Trump. In a speech in August, Trump said, “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror” and that must change immediately or the U.S. would stop providing financial assistance.

Saeed’s release suggests Pakistan’s military, which has controlled the nation for much of its 70-year history, is once again asserting control over the country’s civilian authorities and that terrorism suspects won’t be genuinely prosecuted by Islamabad, said Harsh Pant, an international relations professor at King’s College London.

Since a September by-election in Lahore, where a number of right-wing religious groups strongly campaigned for independent candidates, Pakistan’s military has been accused of “mainstreaming” extremist outfits and re-branding them as political entities to contest elections — a charge the armed forces rebut. Elements of the armed forces have historically fostered ties with insurgents targeting neighboring Afghanistan and India.

“The whole process looks very suspicious, it doesn’t look like there was ever a serious process underway,” Pant said. “In some sense, this justifies the Trump administration’s harder approach on Pakistan.”

With Beijing financing more than $55 billion of Pakistani infrastructure projects as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, some analysts have suggested that Pakistan can to some extent ignore pressure from the U.S.

India-Pakistan relations are already at a low ebb, particularly under the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but Saeed’s release will reinforce the view from New Delhi that peace talks would be pointless while the military is allegedly overpowering civilian institutions, Pant said.

The point the Indian “government has been making is, who do we talk to?” he said. Pakistan’s “civil-military relations are at the point where the civilians seem to have completely lost the plot and the military is reasserting itself.”