The legal troubles for the newly founded Milli Muslim League, the political face of Hafiz Saeed’sJamaat-ud-Dawa, had barely ended in Pakistan when the United States government decided to declare it a terrorist group.
The US Treasury and State Departments designated the MML and seven of its leaders Specially Designated Global Terrorists for being a front of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was designated in 2001. Another entity, Tehreek-e-Azadi Jammu and Kashmir, that was formed last year and banned by the local authorities months later, was also listed for being an “alias” of the LeT.
The charge against the MML and its leadership is that they were acting on behalf of the LeT to “undermine Pakistan’s political process”. The connection that the US was able to establish between the MML and LeT was that it relied “on leadership of the LeT for guidance and direction,” which is a publicly stated position of the MML.
At the group’s launch at the Islamabad’s National Press Club, MML chief Saifullah Khalid, who has now been designated, had said that the group would seek guidance from Hafiz Saeed. In fact, the party makes no secret of its ties with Hafiz Saeed, who is accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks. MrSaeed has also been inaugurating the MML’s party offices.
“Amendments take aim at Lashkar-e-Taiba’s efforts to circumvent sanctions and deceive the public about its true character,” State Department’s Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales said in Washington. The designation, a US domestic action, seizes all assets owned by MML and its designated leaders within US jurisdiction and bars American nationals from engaging in transactions with them. The designation also prohibits any “material support” or other kind of contact with the sanctioned entity and individuals.
There could, however, be some unforeseen consequences at the same time. It may be used against other personalities and groups by accusing them of having associated with or provided services to MML or its leaders. This has happened in the past when people and groups have been wrongly designated because they unknowingly provided material support or undertook activities that they understood were not in support of terrorist activity. This can’t be ruled out in future as well. The situation is compounded by a lack of opportunity to challenge the evidence, limited judicial review in such cases and the wide powers enjoyed by the secretaries of Treasury and State.
One important aspect that is not getting enough attention here is the timing of the event. It has come amid a deterioration in India-Administered Kashmir, the area where Hafiz Saeed’s organizations have traditionally focused. Just last weekend 20 people were killed in clashes with Indian forces there. In that context, it is feared that the US action could fuel extremism by feeding the narrative that it was done by a hardline Trump Administration on behalf of India. This would give the group additional grist for propaganda to win followers and support.
If one looks at the MML’s reaction to its designation, it is not difficult to notice that it has been phrased on these lines. It says the MML is against extremism and it is the US that is intervening in Pakistan’s internal matters, dishing out terror labels, and “depriving people of their political freedom”. It further noted: “MML’s registration process is underway and such designations are aimed [at undermining] Pakistan’s sovereignty and constitution”.
Theoretically, the US move does not affect the MML’s efforts to register with the Election Commission in Pakistan so it can field candidates in the 2018 elections. The Pakistani government is not legally bound to implement those US sanctions. But, still it would be difficult for the authorities here to ignore the American administration’s decision. Lest we forget, the government is already facing the consequences of ignoring world pressure for acting against Hafiz Saeed and his network of organizations. Pakistan is also set to be put on the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list from June with all its economic and financial ramifications.
The MML had applied to the Election Commission of Pakistan last August to register it as a political entity. The application was rejected because of the MML’s known links with the JuD and the Ministry of Interior’s advice. The idea was not to indulge proscribed and under-observation organizations that were trying to take part in the political process to gain legitimacy. The ECP’s decision was challenged in the Islamabad High Court, which nullified the rejection and asked the ECP to reconsider the MML’s case. While reviewing the case, the ECP has asked party leaders to obtain a no-objection certificate from the Interior Ministry.
Interior Minister AhsanIqbal made his ministry’s position clear even before receiving the MML’s request for anNoC. “It’s an international obligation to take action against terrorist-linked groups,” the minister said in an interview with Bloomberg. Indicating that the government would be moving against the Islamabad High Court decision, he said: “This point and some more material will be shared with the court to get it [IHC verdict] undone.”
The MML accuses the interior minister and PML-N government of pursuing politically motivated discrimination against it.
The MML’s bid for registration has been complicated because of the presidential ordinance issued earlier this year. It puts all UN-designated entities and individuals on the domestic list of proscribed persons and organizations. The LeT was listed here a long time back, but the JuD was on the watch list. JuD’s status changed with the enactment of the new law and its assets were seized across the country. The local laws, moreover, do not permit the resurrection of banned groups under new names. That apparently is the end of the road for the MML.
The MML’s contention that everybody enjoys the constitutional freedom to associate with any political party or form one misses the point that this right has certain qualifications; it can be only exercised as long as there is no restriction by the law and it isn’t against the interest and sovereignty of the country. In the MML’s case both these restrictions apply.