LAHORE, Pakistan – The founder of the group India blames for last year's Mumbai siege was ordered freed in a court ruling Tuesday that raised new tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors and drew criticism of Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism.
The ruling to end the six-month house arrest of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed comes at a time when Washington and other Western allies would prefer that Pakistan focus on dislodging Taliban militants in the border region with Afghanistan — rather than its decades-old rivalry with India.
It also comes as Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, is due in Islamabad Wednesday for talks on the month-old military offensive to drive Taliban militants from the Swat Valley region in the northwest.
In the eastern city of Lahore, a three-judge High Court panel ruled that Saeed, a hardline Islamic cleric detained since a December crackdown in response to the Mumbai attack, could be held no longer because there was no evidence against him, his lawyer A.K. Dogar told reporters.
The court did not immediately make its findings public.
Saeed stayed within the compound of his home near Lahore after the ruling, and it was not clear if there were further formalities to be completed before he could leave. Attorney General Sardar Latif Khosa said the government was considering an appeal, but needed time to study the judgment.
Saeed is the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an organization he says is a charity to help impoverished and disaster-stricken Pakistanis. The United Nations has designated the group a front for the notorious Lashkar-e-Taiba and says it is a terrorist group in its own right.
India accuses Lashkar of sending the teams of gunmen that rampaged through Mumbai last November in an attack on luxury hotels, a busy train station and other sites. The three-day siege left 166 people dead.
Pakistan banned Lashkar in 2002 during a crackdown on militant groups that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, under pressure from Washington, which considers it a terrorist group.
Saeed set up Lashkar in the 1980s with the blessing of Pakistan's intelligence services, and the group has a long and bloody history of guerrilla warfare and bombings aimed at Indian rule in Kashmir. The neighbors have fought two wars over the Himalayan territory since 1947.
Indian prosecutors say evidence gleaned from the sole survivor among the 10 Mumbai gunmen — Mohammed Ajmal Kasab — supports the claim. Kasab, a Pakistani, is on trial for his life in India.
Saeed was among several suspects taken into custody in December in Pakistan, which banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa, seized its assets and closed its offices. No charges were ever announced against Saeed or others picked up in the crackdown.
Tuesday's decision to free Saeed prompted immediate condemnation from India.
"We are unhappy that Pakistan does not show the degree of seriousness and commitment that it should to bring to justice perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attack," India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters in New Delhi.
The Indian Foreign Ministry said Saeed, Lashkar and Jamaat-ud-Dawa had "a long and well established background" of terrorism directed at India.
"His release raises serious doubts over Pakistan's sincerity in acting with determination against terrorist groups and individuals operating from its territory," it said.
Saeed told Pakistan's Geo news channel by telephone that the case against him was an "international conspiracy" and that the ruling proved Jamat-ud-Dawa was not a terrorist organization.
Defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said it appeared prosecutors had not pressed their case against Saeed very hard. Moonis Ahmar, a professor of international relations at Karachi University, said it showed elements within the government were protecting Saeed and his group.
"It seems that a section of the establishment keep covering up and patronizing such elements," Ahmar told The Associated Press. "I think the government would appeal if it believes him to be a threat to national security and peace."
Ahmar said the ruling would give a moral boost to militants fighting government forces that have reclaimed large parts of Swat from Taliban control in the past month.
A series of suicide attacks in Pakistani cities last week were claimed by a senior Taliban member as reprisals for the Swat offensive.
Pakistani television networks aired security camera footage of last Wednesday's assault on a police center and intelligence agency building in Lahore. The attack killed about 30 people.
The footage shows at least three attackers driving up in a white van to a guard post protected by concrete barriers and security gates. Two men jump out and start firing rifles, giving chase as guards flee.
One of the men then opens the gates, and the van drives forward. One of the attackers crumples to the ground, apparently shot by someone who is not in view.
A different camera then shows a huge flash and a cloud of dust spewing into the air as the van apparently detonates.