May 18, 2016 4:58:02 am
SHAHID Latif, an alleged commander of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, who is being termed as “one of the main handlers” of the Pathankot attackers by National Investigation Agency had been operating in Jammu and Kashmir until he was arrested and subsequently deported in 2010 after spending 16 years in Indian jails.
J&K Police sources say that Latif was sent back as part of the deportation of Pak prisoners who have served their sentences.
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The story of Latif, a resident of Gujranwala (Pakistan), begins in the early 1990s when Jaish-e-Mohammad’s parent group, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, entered the Kashmir theatre. Harkat was a splinter group of the Harkat-e-Jihadi Islami, which was engaged in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union but once it entered Kashmir, the two factions joined together to form the Harkat-ul-Ansar in 1994.
According to NIA sources, Latif was one of the militants holed up in the Hazratbal shrine during its siege in 1993. Around 40 militants, mostly locals, were holed up for a month while the Army, paramilitary and police laid a siege around it. The standoff was over only after the militants were given a free passage after negotiations. J&K police sources say that soon after the siege was lifted at Hazratbal, Latif was pushed back into Pakistan through the RS Pora border in Jammu which was part of the deal. While NIA claims that Latif was a member of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, J&K police sources say that their records show he was with Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen.
Both NIA and J&K police sources, however, confirmed that Latif returned to the Valley soon afterwards and was arrested in Jammu.
There is a case registered against him in Gandhinagar Police Station (FIR 42) under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA). He was tried and sentenced for eight years in this case but he spend eight more years in prison because J&K police kept re-arresting him under the Public Safety Act (PSA) to avoid his deportation.
Masood Azhar, who was General Secretary of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, had also been sent to Kashmir to effect a patch-up between the two Harkat factions in January 1994. Within a month, the Harkat factions did merge but Azhar was arrested at Khanabal (Anantnag) on February 10, 1994, along with another top commander, Sajjad Afghani. Latif, J&K police sources say, was arrested around that time but he wasn’t a top commander and wasn’t with the Harkat. That’s why he stayed under the radar.
The Harkat made four unsuccessful attempts to get Azhar and Afghani out of jail before the IC-814 hijack drama in December 1999 when the government was forced to release him and two others in exchange of the crew and passengers of the Indian airliner hijacked to Kandahar.
NIA sources say that the names of militants that the hijackers of IC 814 initially wanted released in exchange of the crew and passengers of the Indian airliner in Kandahar included Latif but nobody paid heed to the list once the deal was struck to release Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Kashmir militant commander Mushtaq Zargar. However, J&K police sources said there is “no official record of his name being on any list.”
Latif was shifted to a jail in Banaras where he completed his eight-year-long sentence. He wasn’t released and J&K police booked him under Public Safety Act to prevent his deportation that happens once the sentence is served. Latif was finally deported in a routine procedure in 2010.
Once released, Masood Azhar didn’t go back to Harkat. Instead, he launched Jaish-e-Mohammad in February 2000.
NIA sources say that their investigation into the Pathankot attack has revealed that Shahid Latif joined Jaish after he was deported and became an important member of the outfit. NIA sources claim they have enough evidence against Latif that they have put his name in the Letters Rogatory sent to Islamabad. “He was on our radar also because his name had come up during Kathua (attack) too. We think he is one of the main planners of Pathankot attack like (Masood Azhar’s brother) Rouf,’’ an NIA official told The Indian Express.
Incidentally, militants held in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as elsewhere in India, have routinely been released since 2004, when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was in office, either because they had completed their sentences or because prosecutors were unable to prove their guilt for want of evidence.
Last year, an investigation by The Indian Express had revealed that over 150 militants had been sent home – eight of them in August, 2015, in the first transfer made in the Modi government.
For the most part, The Indian Express investigation showed, the prisoners were released after relatively short terms in jail, because prosecutors were unable to secure terrorism convictions. Even though 16 of the 23 terrorism-related cases the investigation studied were arrested with weapons or explosives, only three were charged with attempted murder, and one with murder. Just three of the 23 served more than 14 years in prison.
(With inputs from ENS)
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