ISLAMABAD: The Punjab government on Wednesday banned two charities linked to Hafiz Saeed, just days before a global watchdog is due to vote on a US-backed motion to put Islamabad on a watchlist for failing to curb terrorist financing.
The move comes after Pakistan quietly amended its anti-terror laws to ban organisations listed as terrorists by the United Nations. The change was made by President Mamnoon Hussain on Friday and published by the law ministry late Monday.
Authorities have begun seizing control of offices and financial assets of the charities – the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), an official said. Saeed, one of the founders of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), is banned on the international terrorism blacklist maintained by the UN.
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The United States and India blame Saeed for deadly militant attacks, including a four-day siege by gunmen in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people. Washington has offered $10 million for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
Pakistan has banned the LeT but allowed its charity wings to continue operating, maintaining an extensive network which includes 300 seminaries and schools, hospitals, a publishing house and ambulance services.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told Reuters that Ministry of Interior had issued a notification against JuD and the FIF last week. "We have received the ministry directions, and according to that, Hafiz Saeed and his charities, like JuD and the FIF, have been banned to operate in Pakistan," he said.
The action comes days before a meeting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money laundering watchdog, which will consider a US-sponsored motion to place Pakistan on a list of countries failing to prevent terrorism financing.
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Pakistan was on the FATF watchlist from 2012 to 2015. The United States has labelled JuD and FIF ‘terrorist fronts’ for LeT. Hafiz Saeed has repeatedly denied involvement in violence, including the Mumbai attacks.
Earlier the Lahore High Court (LHC) freed Saeed from house arrest after ruling that there was insufficient evidence to convict him. Pakistan drew up plans late last year to take over Saeed's charities in a secret order first reported by Reuters.
In Rawalpindi, district officers had begun taking over the charities' offices, a city official said. "We've taken over all the JuD and FIF assets. We've completed the takeover," Rawalpindi commissioner Nadeem Aslam told Reuters.
Aslam said he did not know the exact number of offices and seminaries involved in the asset seizure but data was being compiled in all four districts of Rawalpindi division and he expected full details of the assets.
A spokesmen for JuD, Nadeem Awan, said the government had replaced all of the group's staff at its headquarters in Muridke just outside the eastern city of Lahore.
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"We have received information from various parts of Punjab that the government has started a crackdown against FIF's ambulance service and health facilities," he told Reuters.
A separate JuD statement said it would fight a legal battle against the action, which it said Pakistan was taking to please America and India. A spokesman for the FIF did not reply to calls and messages for comment. Saeed himself, who rarely speaks to the media, could not be reached for comment.
The officials involved in the seizure of assets said failure to act against the charities could lead to Pakistan's inclusion on the FATF watchlist. That would make it harder for foreigners to do business in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.
Adviser to PM on Finance Miftah Ismail told Reuters the FATF would consider a motion to place Pakistan on the list but the government was ‘hopeful’ it could make its case to avoid it.
According to a senior government official, the provincial government has suspended the FIF’s operations throughout Punjab. With this suspension in place, the FIF would not be allowed to continue with its charitable work. “Direct and indirect financing of the FIF has also been axed,” he said.
He said the US legislators were given multiple briefing in Islamabad, in recent past regarding the operations of the FIF and JuD. “Home secretaries of all four provinces participated in the said meetings. However, despite every effort they continued to exert pressure to ban the outfits,” he added.
[REUTERS WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT IN LAHORE]