ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan banned two charities linked to the founder of an Islamist militant group on Wednesday, just days before a global watchdog is due to vote on a U.S.-backed motion to put Islamabad on a watchlist for failing to curb terrorist financing.
Authorities have begun seizing control of offices and financial assets of the charities founded by Hafiz Saeed, an official said.
Saeed, one of the founders of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (“Army of the Pure” or LeT), is banned on the international terrorism blacklist maintained by the United Nations.
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. Washington has long complained about Islamabad’s failure to shut them down.
Punjab province’s law minister, Rana Sanaullah, said the central Ministry of Interior had issued a notification against Saeed’s two charities, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), last week.
“We have received the interior ministry directions, and according to that, Hafiz Saeed and his charities, like JuD and FIF, have been banned to operate in Pakistan,” Sanaullah told Reuters.
The action comes days before a meeting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money laundering watchdog, which will consider a U.S.-sponsored motion to place Pakistan on a list of countries failing to prevent terrorism financing. Pakistan was on the FATF watchlist from 2012 to 2015.
The United States has labelled JuD and FIF “terrorist fronts” for LeT. Saeed has repeatedly denied involvement in violence, including the Mumbai attacks. A Pakistani court freed him from house arrest last year after ruling 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 the city of Rawalpindi, located in Punjab province adjacent to the capital Islamabad, 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.
“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.
However, a Reuters reporter visited Al-Qadsia mosque in Lahore, which serves as the JuD’s secretariat, and there was no sign of a government takeover. A separate JuD statement said it would fight a legal battle to 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.
Pakistani officials involved in the seizures 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.
Pakistan’s de facto finance minister, 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.
Additional Reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore, Pakistan; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Nick Macfie and Peter Graff