Pakistan bars militant with S$13.5m US bounty on his head from contesting polls

Milli Muslim League president Saifullah Khalid (second from left) said they will challenge the decision. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (REUTERS) - Pakistan's electoral commission on Wednesday (Oct 11) barred a new political party that is backed by an Islamist with a US$10 million (S$13.55 million) US bounty on his head from contesting elections, a government official said.

Mr Haroon Khan, a spokesman for the commission, said a four-man panel rejected the registration of Milli Muslim League (MML) as an official political party.

Mr Khan said Mr Muhammad Raza Khan, chief of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), told MML's lawyer at the final hearing of the registration that the new party has links with militant groups and, as such, "We can't enlist you."

The ECP spokesman said the commission cited an Interior Ministry recommendation that the MML was "affiliated" with Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), a militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, and that such groups could breed violence and extremism in politics.

The United States has designated LeT founder Hafiz Saeed a terrorist and offers a US$10 million reward for information leading to his conviction.

Saeed, currently under house arrest, heads the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Islamic charity, which Washington says is a front for the LeT.

Pakistan's reluctance to press charges against him has been a sore point in relations with Washington and India over the past decade.

Saifullah Khalid, the head of the MML, said his party would challenge the decision. "An attempt is being made to keep patriotic forces away from politics," he said.

The party is likely to continue operating unofficially, as it did last month when one of its leaders contested a by-election in the eastern city of Lahore as an independent candidate.

The candidate, Mr Yaqoob Sheikh, won several thousand votes, though officials from the MML and JuD ran his campaign. Saeed's portraits adorned posters promoting Mr Sheikh.

The move to bar the party appears at odds with what political and former military sources told Reuters was a plan by the military's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency to integrate militant-linked organisations by bringing them into politics as part of a de-radicalisation drive.

Pakistani army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor also said last week the integration of militants into the country's politics would be based on seeking a constructive role for the militant-linked groups, although he did not comment on the military's role in any such strategy.

"It is in my knowledge that the government has started some discussion over it, that is, how do we mainstream them," Maj Gen Ghafoor said.

Neighbours India and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan's military of backing and using militant groups such as LeT as proxies, a charge the army denies.

The MML is actively running a campaign for its candidate contesting another by-election on Oct 26, to be held in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

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