Man wanted by U.S. is face of new Pak­istan party

The Buffalo News - - CONTINUED FROM THE COVER - By Mehreen Zahra-Ma­lik

LA­HORE, Pak­istan – For years, Hafiz Saeed, one of the most-wanted mil­i­tant lead­ers in South Asia, has lived in the open in Pak­istan de­spite a $10 mil­lion U.S. bounty on his head. He has mocked ef­forts by the United States to cap­ture him and led large public gath­er­ings in La­hore, Pak­istan’s sec­ond-largest city.

Now he is try­ing some­thing even more brazen: In re­cent weeks, he has be­come the face of a new po­lit­i­cal party cam­paign­ing to win the seat of a for­mer prime min­is­ter in the Na­tional As­sem­bly.

Last month, the Is­lamist char­ity Saeed founded – Ja­maat-ud-Dawa, which is widely ac­cused of be­ing a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba mil­i­tant group that waged the deadly 2008 Mum­bai, In­dia, at­tacks and is on the U.N. list of global ter­ror­ist groups – an­nounced that it was start­ingth­eMil­liMus­limLeague po­lit­i­cal party.

The Election Com­mis­sion of Pak­istan has for­bid­den the dis­play of Saeed’s pic­ture on election posters, but de­spite these clear or­ders, the con­stituency in La­hore is cov­ered with posters show­ing Saeed, his vis­age side-by-side with the of­fi­cial can­di­date, Muham­mad Yaqoob Sheikh, a se­nior Ja­maat-ud-Dawa leader.

Saeed, who is un­der house ar­rest, can­not run for the seat him­self nor can he at­tend cam­paign events in per­son. In 2012, Sheikh was placed on a U.S. Trea­sury sanc­tions list of those des­ig­nated as lead­ers of ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions.

A large restau­rant on Lak­shmi Chowk, a boule­vard named af­ter the Hindu goddess of for­tune, has been con­verted into the party’s head­quar­ters, where dozens of vol­un­teers were un­fold­ing ban­ners and posters on a re­cent visit.

One group went over voter lists in prepa­ra­tion for a doorto-door aware­ness drive, while more than two dozen young men pre­pared for a mo­tor­cy­cle cam­paign through the nar­row al­leys and con­gested roads of La­hore’s Old City. In a so­cial me­dia of­fice, vol­un­teers edited cam­paign videos to be re­leased on­line.

Naveed Qa­mar, the party’s cam­paign man­ager, said a women’s wing made up of rel­a­tives of se­nior Ja­maat lead­ers was go­ing door to door, and the party had set up about 150 small of­fices and stalls across the election dis­trict.

“Peo­ple have emp­tied their homes and of­fered them to us as of­fices,” Qa­mar said. “One sup­porter paid for all the ban­ners. Another gave us his print­ing press.”

He made no at­tempt to hide the party’s anti-In­dia lean­ing or what he called its “ide­o­log­i­cal affin­ity” with Lashkar-e-Taiba, adding the party had Saeed’s “full sup­port and bless­ing.”

“From the deep­est re­cesses of his heart, no Pak­istani wants friend­ship with In­dia,” Qa­mar said. “In that way, we are with Lashkar-e-Taiba.”

The party, which says its goal is to unite Pak­istan’s Mus­lims across all eth­nic­i­ties and lan­guages, is not yet for­mally reg­is­tered with the election com­mis­sion, be­cause it sub­mit­ted its doc­u­ments only in Au­gust, so Sheikh is run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date in the spe­cial election be­ing held Sun­day to fill the seat that Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif was forced to va­cate over cor­rup­tion charges in July.

“But that does not mean we are not a re­al­ity,” Qa­mar said. “We have launched our party, and our cam­paign­ing is go­ing on in full swing.”

The cam­paign is seen as largely sym­bolic, and the party is not ex­pected to win the seat.

In Jan­uary, the Pak­istani govern­ment put Saeed un­der house ar­rest to keep him from col­lect­ing funds for his char­ity in vi­o­la­tion of U.N. res­o­lu­tions. Pak­istan also in­cluded the char­ity on an In­te­rior Min­istry watch list, though it did not ban it.

Against the back­drop of Saeed’s ar­rest, many see the Ja­maat-ud-Dawa’s bold foray into pol­i­tics as an at­tempt to gain le­git­i­macy at a time when Pak­istan’s govern­ment is be­ing forced to act against it amid pres­sure from the United States and groups like the Fi­nan­cial Ac­tion Task Force, which tracks ter­ror­ism fi­nanc­ing.

For decades, Pak­istan has cast a be­nign eye on groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba – which is per­ceived as an as­set be­cause its at­tacks tar­get In­dian sol­diers in dis­puted Kash­mir – even as the govern­ment bat­tles en­ti­ties like the Pak­istani Tal­iban that di­rectly threaten the coun­try.

“The fact that the state, to this point, has not stood in the way of this po­lit­i­cal party’s for­ma­tion gives the lie to the idea that Pak­istan’s pow­ers-that-be are en­gaged in a full-court blitz against ter­ror and ex­trem­ism of all stripes,” said Michael Kugel­man, deputy di­rec­tor for Asia at the Wilson Cen­ter, a re­search in­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton.

Nei­ther Pak­istan’s In­te­rior Min­istry, which over­sees coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions, nor the mil­i­tary’s me­dia wing re­sponded to phone calls seek­ing com­ment.

Pak­istan’s all-pow­er­ful mil­i­tary openly con­trols the coun­try’s for­eign pol­icy and in­ter­nal se­cu­rity, and its spy ser­vice, the In­ter-Ser­vices In­tel­li­gence Di­rec­torate, is widely con­sid­ered to have helped es­tab­lish the Lashkar mil­i­tant group in 1989 to counter In­dia.

The Pak­istani govern­ment and­mil­i­tary­denyanylink­tothat group. But of­fi­cials have pub­licly re­buffed pres­sure by the United States and In­dia to charge Saeed in the Mum­bai at­tacks, ar­gu­ing that there is not enough ev­i­dence to pros­e­cute him.

Rana said he did not think the state was be­hind the new party. “Some peo­ple in the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment might be putting their weight be­hind this party,” he said. “But I don’t see this as part of a con­certed push by the state.”

The dis­pute over Pak­istan’s al­low­ing Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ide­ol­ogy to per­sist un­der yet another name, and how far Is­lam­abad will go to get rid of ji­hadis, has dam­aged re­la­tions be­tween Pak­istan and the United States in the past. And the an­nounce­ment of the new party could fur­ther strain ties at a time when Pres­i­dent Trump has laid out a South Asia strat­egy that in­cludes new steps to pres­sure Pak­istan to shut down mil­i­tant sanc­tu­ar­ies.

“For Wash­ing­ton, the ques­tion is and will con­tinue to be why the Pak­istani state isn’t stop­ping a po­lit­i­cal party tied to Lashkar-e-Taiba from be­ing formed, par­tic­u­larly in light of Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­cent harsh words about Pak­istan,” Kugel­man said.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.