- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2011

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — An Islamist militant accused in dozens of killings and a 2009 attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team was freed on bail Thursday after 14 years in custody because the Supreme Court decided there was not enough evidence to keep holding him, his lawyer said.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, reeled from fresh political violence that killed at least 14 people and added to the nation’s instability.

The release of Malik Ishaq, a leader of the banned Sunni Muslim extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, underscores the difficulty Pakistani prosecutors have convicting suspects in a justice system that lacks resources, is plagued by corruption and is rife with tales of witness intimidation.

Members of extremist groups routinely have escaped justice in Pakistan because of the legal system’s perceived ineptitude.

Mr. Ishaq was arrested in 1997 and has been accused of a slew of crimes, including attacks on minority Shiite Muslims. In 2009, he also was blamed for orchestrating the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. Six security officers and a driver died in that assault.

Although he’s been implicated in some 44 cases, he was convicted in just two minor ones and already has served the time for those, said his lawyer, Qazi Misbah. But prosecutors have tried to keep Mr. Ishaq behind bars, even as they’ve struggled to prove other cases and persuade frightened witnesses to testify.

The Supreme Court on Monday decided that there was not enough evidence to prevent Mr. Ishaq from being granted bail. After posting bonds worth 1 million rupees ($11,600), Mr. Ishaq walked free Thursday, Mr. Misbah said. TV footage showed hundreds of Mr. Ishaq’s supporters greeting him as he left the jail in Kot Lakhpat, a town on the outskirts of Lahore.

Mr. Ishaq told Pakistan’s private Geo TV channel that he had been falsely accused and that he would do whatever possible to ensure peace in Pakistan.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the affiliated Sipah-e-Sahaba are among the most notorious extremist groups in Pakistan. Jhangvi, in particular, is suspected of ties to al Qaeda and roles in a variety of terrorist attacks, including the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

Criminal conviction rates hover between 5 percent and 10 percent in Pakistan, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank. Terrorism convictions are rare, even in major cases, and convictions in lower courts frequently are overturned by appeals courts. Part of the problem is that police are ill-trained in the art of gathering evidence, while witnesses are often afraid to testify.

Prosecutors could not immediately be reached Thursday for comment in the Ishaq case.

In Karachi, residents were dealing with another round of violence that has brought the death toll in two weeks to more than 100.

Late Wednesday, Zulfiqar Mirza, a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, called Altaf Hussain, chief of the city’s powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a murderer and an extortionist. He also maligned the city’s Urdu-speaking community, which makes up the MQM party’s main base.

Karachi echoed with gunfire soon after a local TV channel aired Mr. Mirza’s comments. Angry mobs also torched more than a dozen vehicles. Fourteen people were killed in the fighting, said Manzoor Wasan, home minister in Sindh province, where Karachi is the capital.

Karachi has a long history of political, ethnic and sectarian violence, and much of the fighting is blamed on gangs allegedly affiliated with political parties. Last week, dozens were killed in violence believed to be linked to the MQM’s decision to leave the federal ruling coalition and join the opposition.

Mr. Mirza apologized for his comments Thursday, calling members of the Urdu-speaking community his “brothers.” His mea culpa came as thousands of people rallied in the center of the city to condemn him and burn his effigies.

Mr. Hussain, who lives in self-imposed exile in London, appealed to his supporters to call off protests, a move that seemed to help calm the situation by Thursday evening.

A large number of MQM’s supporters are Urdu-speaking descendants of people who came to Karachi from India soon after the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The party dominates politics in urban areas of Sindh, including Karachi, but over time it has seen challenges to its power from the People’s Party and the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party.

Ashraf Khan reported from Karachi.