Pakistani court acquits extremist leader of hate speech

RAWALPINDI (AFP) - An anti-terror court in Pakistan Thursday acquitted the leader of a banned sectarian militant group of inciting violence in three speeches.

Malik Ishaq, who was named a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" by the US State Department earlier this year, heads the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant group that is dedicated to killing Shiites and has carried out a number of spectacular attacks inside Pakistan in recent years.

Despite being officially banned since 2001, the group operates relatively openly, particularly in the biggest province of Punjab.

"My client Malik Ishaq was acquitted in three different cases by Rana Masood, judge of anti terrorism court 2 Rawalpindi," Ishaq's lawyer Rao Abdur Raheem told AFP.

He said the cases had been brought by the state in different parts of the country.

"My client was arrested for inciting violence and making hate speeches in Jehlum, Chakwal and Attock. The judge released him because of lack of evidence," he said, referring to towns in Punjab.

Mr Raheem said that his client was in prison during the time the cases were registered against him in different police stations.

Ishaq was arrested in February 2013 after a deadly attack on the Shiite Hazara minority in the southwestern city of Quetta that killed around 90 people. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had claimed responsibility for the attack.

He was placed under house arrest and later shifted to Bahawalpur prison, where he has been serving time under under a Maintenance of Public Order ordinance.

But he was also intermittently freed in order to act as mediator between the government and Punjab-based militants.

Ishaq has been accused of masterminding the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, which wounded seven players and an assistant coach and killed eight Pakistanis.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi emerged as a spin-off from the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a fellow anti-Shiite group in the late 1990s and is believed to have close ties to the Pakistani Taliban as well as Al Qaeda.