ISLAMABAD - The leader of a banned Pakistani sectarian militant group is set to walk free from jail, officials said Tuesday, even as the government considers "radical changes" to tackle militancy after a Taliban school massacre.
Malik Ishaq, the head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) which is dedicated to killing minority Shiite Muslims, is expected to be released on Thursday after the Punjab provincial government withdrew a request to extend his detention under public order laws.
The announcement comes less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to eradicate the "cancer" of sectarianism, and will add to concerns about the effectiveness of the government response to the school killings.
LeJ has claimed responsibility for numerous bloody attacks, including two bombings targeting Shiites in the southwestern city of Quetta in 2013 that killed a total of nearly 200 people.
A senior legal official told AFP the decision not to seek an extension of Ishaq's detention was made by a three-judge review panel at Lahore High Court on Monday.
Ishaq, named a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" by the US, has been implicated in numerous murder cases and was accused of masterminding a 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore which killed eight people.
An anti-terror court in May cleared him of inciting violence and of making speeches which fomented hate but he was held under maintenance of public order laws.
Pakistan has ramped up its anti-terror strategy since the December 16 attack on an army-run school in Peshawar which killed 149 people, 133 of them children.
Six convicts have been hanged after Sharif lifted a moratorium on executions in terror cases, and the military has stepped up operations against insurgent bases in the tribal northwest.
Officials said Monday that Pakistan plans to execute around 500 militants in coming weeks.
An official in Sharif's office said Tuesday the prime minister had cleared his diary to discuss "radical changes/reforms" with ministers, legal advisers and military top brass.
Heavily armed gunmen stormed the school in Pakistan's deadliest ever terror attack, claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as revenge for the killing of their families in the army offensive.
Sharif hinted the military operation could be extended against "the enemy who is hidden in our cities and villages", in a statement late on Monday.
"Terrorism and sectarianism is like a cancer for Pakistan and now is high time we got rid of this menace," he said.
Sectarian violence, mainly targeting Shiites who make up around one in five of the population, has been on the rise in recent years.
But it is relatively rare for a top politician to address the issue specifically by name in such frank terms.
Support for hangings
The government's announcement of a wave of executions has sparked protests from international human rights groups and the United Nations.
Some have criticised the lifting of the moratorium as politically motivated, aiming to capitalise on public outrage over Peshawar, and have said it will do little to stem terror.
Farzana Bari, a Pakistani human rights activist, condemned the government's move as a "knee-jerk response", saying the problem of extremism begins in mosques and seminaries.
"We have to look at our mosques where hate speeches and this kind of mindset has been created," she told AFP.
But there was support for hangings among more than a dozen ordinary Pakistanis interviewed by AFP around the country on Tuesday, though several said executions alone would not solve the problem.
"Terrorism will not finish with executions as it is a longstanding problem, but definitely death penalty will be helpful in reducing terrorism," said office worker Atiq Zafar, 42, in Lahore.
In Karachi, student Sikander Afaq said he believed executing terror convicts would send a clear message to other fighters.