Hafiz Saeed, head of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist group, accused by India and the US of masterminding the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, was jailed for 11 years on Wednesday on terrorism financing charges, news reports said.
The move is expected to bolster Pakistan’s argument that it has been making efforts to sever finances to terrorist groups, just days ahead of a crucial meet of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global financial watchdog that will deliberate whether or not to blacklist Pakistan over failure to curb terrorism financing.
Pakistan is on the FATF’s so-called grey list and has been under increasing pressure to plug financing of terror groups. Blacklisting would likely result in tough financial and banking restrictions that could cripple Pakistan’s already struggling economy.
The question was whether the members of the FATF at its 16-23 February meeting in Paris would consider Saeed’s sentencing as enough to remove Pakistan from the grey list and place it with other countries in the FATF’s white list, according to analysts. So far, Pakistan has avoided being placed on the black list because of support from countries such as China, Malaysia and Turkey. To move out of the grey list, however, Islamabad would need the support of at least 12 of 39 countries in FATF.
Saeed’s sentencing also comes ahead of a visit to India later this month by US President Donald Trump, who has been critical of Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism. However, the US has been looking at striking a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan over whom Pakistan has sway.
“Hafiz Saeed and a close aide have been sentenced in two cases of terrorism financing," prosecutor Abdul Rauf Watto was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. “The total punishment in both the cases was 11 years but he will serve five-and-a-half years in jail as the two punishments will run concurrently," Saeed’s lawyer Imran Gill said. “We will appeal against the verdict," Gill was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Saeed is the founder of LeT, a group blamed by India and the US for terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, in which 166 people, including six Americans and other foreigners, were killed. Saeed denied any involvement and said his network, which spans 300 seminaries and schools, hospitals, a publishing house, and ambulance services, has no ties with terrorist groups.
There was no immediate comment from India’s foreign ministry on Wednesday. However, New Delhi, which has been pushing for Saeed to be tried in the Mumbai terrorist attack case, is unlikely to welcome the sentencing as the LeT chief has only been found guilty of financing terrorist groups.
“It is clear that Pakistan has its eye on 16-23 February FATF meeting in Paris," said a person familiar with the matter. “We need to see how the meeting goes," the person said without elaborating.
In FATF’s January meeting in Beijing, Pakistan had outlined the steps it had taken and found support from China, Malaysia, and Turkey. Countries such as the US also did not question Pakistan’s progress report, news reports said. At another FATF meeting in Paris in October, Pakistan was found non-compliant on 22 out of its 27 parameters and was cautioned that it could be blacklisted in February if it fails to curb the flow of funds to terrorist groups.
Countries such as France and Australia have said that they would look at the progress report presented by Pakistan and take a position based on the facts.