NEW DELHI: There’s a sense of the farcical in Hafiz Saeed’s conviction by a Pakistani court. He was found guilty of arranging funds for terrorist organisations, not for actually running terrorist strikes against India including the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The five and a half year sentence (two convictions to run concurrently) comes loaded with a helpful clause that grants him the benefit of a reduced jail term. So for all we know, Saeed will rejoin his merry men of the Lashkar-e-Toiba before long.
There’s an interesting money angle here too. He’s been fined Rs 30,000 (less than $200) by the court. Last year, in an unprecedented display of solicitude, the Pakistani government petitioned the UN Security Council (since Saeed is a UN-designated global terrorist) to allow him to withdraw Rs1,50,000 (about $970) from his bank account every month to meet the expenses of his family. Incidentally, Saeed reportedly continues to draw a pension of Rs 45,700 ($296) from his 25-year service as an assistant professor at the University of Engineering & Technology, Lahore. Extraordinarily good going for a globally designated terrorist!
So India remains sceptical, noting the timing of Saeed’s conviction: just days ahead of the meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in Paris that will review Islamabad’s progress (if any) in curbing terrorism financing. Pakistan has been on the FATF Grey List since 2018.
But Washington appears gung ho. Alice Wells, a senior diplomat in the Bureau of Central and South Asian Affairs of the State Department, described Saeed’s conviction as “an important step forward—both toward holding LeT accountable for its crimes and for Pakistan in meeting its international commitments to combat terrorist financing”.
She even went the extra mile giving Pak Prime Minister Imran Khan a pat on the back, in a tweet: “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. AGW.”
So can one expect a FATF verdict favourable to Pakistan next week? It’s possible and you have to read the tea leaves closely to understand why. An Afghanistan peace deal could be on cards with Washington seeking a partial cessation of violence by the Taliban as a sign of good faith. That demand may make little sense in the winter when Taliban operations generally reduce. But the point is Pakistan may have played a key role here in “persuading” senior Taliban leaders to go along. Incidentally, most if not all of them are in Pakistan with their families.
Ergo, Pakistan has to be rewarded and what better than a favourable FATF verdict. Ironically, about four months ago the FATF had in a report warned that Pakistan “faces significant ML (money laundering) and TF (terror financing) risks,” adding that “A number of terrorists groups, including UN-listed groups, operate in Pakistan all of which raise funds through a variety of means including direct support, public fundraising, abuse of NPOs (non-profit organisations) and through criminal activities. Funds are moved through formal and informal (mainly hawala/hundi) channels.”
A favourable verdict will give Pakistan a breather from international pressure and hopefully lessen the hard terms being set by global lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unfortunately, it will not change the Pakistani government’s continued use of terrorist groups and the support it provides to thugs like Hafiz Saeed.