Also, there are enough pointers hinting that decks are being cleared to let Islamabad off the hook at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meet in Paris early next week.
As it happens, the conviction came just days before the six-day session of FATF beginning 16 February. The plenary will deliberate whether Pakistan can be allowed off the 'gray list.'
India's neighbour has been on the FATF’s so-called gray list since June 2018 and has been under increasing pressure to plug financing of terror groups. Blacklisting Islamabad would likely result in tough financial and banking restrictions that could cripple the country's already struggling economy. It will also mean that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which last year approved a $6 billion bailout package for Pakistan, will have to stop releasing money tipping the economy into disarray.
“Today’s conviction of Hafiz Saeed and his associate is an important step forward – both toward holding LeT accountable for its crimes, and for #Pakistan in meeting its international commitments to combat terrorist financing," Alice G Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of state, said in a Twitter post late on Wednesday.
“And as @ImranKhanPTI has said, it is in the interest of #Pakistan’s future that it not allow non-state actors to operate from its soil," she added.
Noteworthy in Wells’ remarks was the description of the process of conviction of Saeed as “an important step forward" and the description of him as a “non-state actor."
New Delhi’s reaction on Thursday was in marked contrast to that of the US.
For one, it described Saeed's sentencing as a “long pending international obligation of Pakistan to put an end to support for terrorism."
“The decision has been made on the eve of FATF (Financial Action Task Force) Plenary meeting, which has to be noted. Hence, the efficacy of this decision remains to be seen," a person familiar with the developments said.
“It has to also be seen whether Pakistan would take action against other all terrorist entities and individuals operating from territories under its control, and bring perpetrators of cross border terrorist attacks, including in Mumbai and Pathankot to justice expeditiously," the person cited above said referring to two terrorist attacks in India.
The first took place in 2008 in Mumbai in which 166 people were killed over a span of 60 hours when 10 terrorists from Pakistan’s LeT held India’s financial capital to ransom. The second was an attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force station in 2016.
Given that Saeed’s sentencing was based on his record of financing terror groups, it was clear that New Delhi would be dissatisfied with the verdict.
India has been urging Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to justice for years. Islamabad had made some arrests and detained seven people in 2009 but released them in later months citing lack of evidence. Saeed whom India considers the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks has been detained by Pakistan many times and let off citing lack of proof against him.
Explicit in New Delhi’s comments is criticism that Saeed has been convicted for money transfers to terrorist entities while the LeT remains unpunished for killing hundreds of Indians in terrorist attacks in Kashmir and other parts of the country.
The two statements show a difference in perception between India and the US on the matter. The US, in 2012, had announced a bounty of $10 million for any information leading to the prosecution of Saeed.
Given that the US has described the sentencing of Saeed as “an important step forward," the question is whether Pakistan could be let off the hook when the FATF Plenary meets from Sunday.
Pakistan needs three votes to avoid the black list that it has – the support of China, Turkey and Malaysia. It, however, needs a total of 12 votes get out of the FATF gray list. In a January meeting of the FATF in Beijing, countries like the US and its allies had reportedly not raised any questions on Pakistan’s compliance report presented to the conference. India was the lone voice raising questions, news reports from Beijing had said.
Subsequently, however, countries like Australia and France had indicated that they would make their assessments on facts presented by Pakistan in the Paris plenary.
The question now is whether India’s strategic partners – France, Australia and the US – will stick by New Delhi or change their minds in favour of Pakistan. The US is looking for an exit from Afghanistan and needs Pakistan to broker a deal with the Taliban that will allow Washington to withdraw its troops in time for the US presidential elections. Withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is as an electoral promise that Trump is keen to deliver before the November poll.
“Let us see how it goes," was all that a government official in New Delhi said when asked about the US' reaction and the upcoming FATF meet.