Pakistan's Interior Ministry has abruptly removed the chief prosecutor from the Mumbai terror attack case for "not taking the government line", an official said on Sunday, in a major setback to India's efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Ten Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists had sailed into Mumbai from Karachi and carried out coordinated attacks, killing 166 people and injuring over 300 in November 2008.
"The Interior Ministry has removed Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Special Prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar, who had been representing as chief of prosecution in the Mumbai attack case since 2009, from the high-profile case," an official of the FIA privy to the development told PTI.
Azhar has been told that his services in the Mumbai attack case are no more required, he said.
"Azhar has only been separated from the Mumbai attack case. However, he will continue to representing the state in other cases like Benazir assassination," he said.
Azhar developed differences with the government over the "manner" the case was being pursued, the official said.
"The government has its own 'special consideration' in this case and Azhar perhaps is not taking the government line. He was keen to follow the high profile case by book," the official tried to explain the possible reasons of the differences between the chief prosecutor and the ruling PML-N government.
When contacted, Azhar only confirmed that he was asked to stop pursuing the Mumbai attack case. "I am no more with this case," he said.
The government offered no explanation of the decision, terming it a routine matter.
"It seems to be a routine matter. I will have to talk to the relevant persons to know the reason," an official of interior ministry said.
The Mumbai attack case has entered into the 10th year but none of its suspects in Pakistan has been punished yet, showing that the case had never been in the priority list of the country that appears to be keen to put it under the carpet.
The weekly hearing in this case hardly takes place since the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) has completed the statement of all (70) prosecution witnesses.
According to the prosecution, the case may not further proceed till the Indian government sends its 24 witnesses to Pakistan to record their statements.
Pakistan has written to India in this regard. India replied that Pakistan must put Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed on trial based on the evidence it had provided to it.
A number of Pakistani witnesses both official and private testified and provided evidence against the seven accused... but still the Pakistani authorities have been insisting on sending Indian witnesses for reaching a verdict in the nine-year-old case.
"The Mumbai attack case is being tried in an anti-terrorism court in Islamabad since 2009. There has hardly been any such case in any ATCs in country taking more than nine years and still pending. The ATCs are meant for speedy trial but in this case the ATC is acting like that of a sessions' court where a case is usually not decided in years.
"It appears that the state is not in a hurry to decide this case since the matter is related to its arch-rival India," a senior lawyer said.
Had the authorities concerned here been serious, this case would have been decided years ago, he said.
Seven LeT suspects -- Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, Abdul Wajid, Mazhar Iqbal, Hamad Amin Sadiq, Shahid Jamil Riaz, Jamil Ahmed and Younis Anjum -- are facing charges of abetment to murder, attempted murder, planning and executing the Mumbai attack since 2009.
Except Lakhvi, the other six are kept in Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi.
LeT operation commander Lakhvi got his freedom about three years ago after securing bail. He has been living in an undisclosed location since then. There are reports that he had come to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa headquarters in Lahore last November to greet Saeed on his release from a 10-month detention under terrorism and public safety laws.
Some 166 people were killed in the attack carried out by 10 LeT men. Nine of the attackers were killed by police while lone survivor Ajmal Kasab was caught and hanged after handed down death sentence.
The JuD is believed to be the front organisation for the LeT which is responsible for carrying out the Mumbai attack.