Malik Ishaq, the leader of a banned sectarian militant group, is unlikely to walk free anytime soon, says his legal counsel.
The head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which is dedicated to killing Shia Muslims across Pakistan, was to be released in December after the Lahore High Court found ‘insufficient evidence’ to imprison him on incitement charges under public order laws. Fearing a backlash on the heels of the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that galvanized the country against militancy of all stripes, the Punjab government ‘re-arrested’ him and detained him in a new murder case a day before he was due to be freed.
Ishaq currently has two cases pending against him, according to lawyer Rao Abdur Raheem: a double-murder case registered under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code, and an ongoing charge of perpetrating the 2009 gun assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team that left eight dead and six others injured. A hearing to deliberate on the murder charges was due to be held on Jan. 7, but has been postponed indefinitely.
“It’s illegal to hold him without charge,” says lawyer Raheem. “The government prosecutors are dragging their feet. In 2009 Ishaq was in jail so how could he have masterminded the attack [on the Sri Lankan cricket team]?”
Ishaq has been in custody for most of the past 18 years, but is widely believed to have planned a slew of terror attacks targeting Shias from behind bars. During this time, the 56-year-old has been acquitted in nearly 64 cases—many implicating him in attacks on Shia Muslims and their mosques—due to lack of evidence or withdrawn witness testimonies. The LeJ, founded by him in 1996, has worked with the Pakistani Taliban and is believed to have ties to Al Qaeda. In 2014, the U.S. declared him a “specially designated global terrorist.” His lawyer, however, maintains his innocence.
“The man is no threat to anyone. He has, in the past, even worked for the state. He should not be isolated,” says Raheem.
The 35-year-old lawyer from Rawalpindi is no stranger to controversy. In 2012, he provided pro bono legal services to a man that had falsely accused a Christian girl of blasphemy. He is also the co-founder of the Movement to Protect the Dignity of the Prophet, a lawyers’ forum dedicated to countering any campaigns seeking amendments to Pakistan’s oft-misused blasphemy laws. Members of the group feted convict Mumtaz Qadri after he shot dead Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, for advocating blasphemy reforms. Raheem says his fervor for the cause is undiminished. “Our forum is still very much active and I continue to work tirelessly for it,” he says.
In addition to Ishaq, Raheem is also representing other members of the LeJ and its offshoot, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. However, he is not worried about any convictions. “All the cases I have are suffering from the same fate—extensions under the maintenance of public order,” he says. “That is probably how it will remain for a while.”