Visit to Canada by Pakistani politician with alleged militant links ignites concerns

A visit to the Greater Toronto Area by a controversial Pakistani politician has some people asking why he would he would be welcomed to Canada.

Organizer of Mississauga, Ont., event says Sheikh Rashid Ahmad 'just like any other politician'

Sheikh Rashid Ahmad is a member of Pakistan's national assembly and was in Mississauga, Ont., this week for an event hosted by Canadian-Pakistani newspaper the Urdu Times. (Gary Morton/CBC)

A visit to Canada by a controversial Pakistani politician with alleged and unproven links to a designated terror group blamed for more than 150 deaths in the 2008 Mumbai attack — including those of two Canadians — has some people asking why he would be welcomed on a visit to Mississauga.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a member of Pakistan's national assembly, known to many simply as "Sheikh Rashid," was in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday for an event hosted by Canadian-Pakistani newspaper, the Urdu Times — an appearance expected to draw an audience of hundreds.

The high-ranking politician has been accused by the India-based magazine India Today of operating a training camp for militants in the 1990s. The news outlet has also reported that Rashid had links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an organization considered by the Canadian government to be a terrorist group.

He has repeatedly denied all of the allegations made against him in India Today's reporting.

CBC News has not been able to independently confirm any of the accusations against Rashid and did not receive a reply to a request for comment.

'Extremely worrying'

Lashkar-e-Taiba, or 'Army of the Pure', was established in the 1980s and operates primarily out of the Indian-administered states of Jammu and Kashmir. According to Public Safety Canada, the group's activities include suicide bombings and armed attacks against civilians, government officials and on Indian security forces, with the ultimate aim of having Kashmir become part of Pakistan. 

Rashid's trip to the Greater Toronto Area has some people alarmed.

Shaan Taseer has been living in Canada as a permanent resident for two years. He is the son of former Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer, who was the governor of Punjab when he was murdered by a body guard in 2011.

The elder Taseer was an outspoken critic of Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws and persecution of religious minorities. 

The man convicted and later hanged for his death, Mumtaz Qadri, became a kind of folk hero among some hardline supporters and tens of thousands of people went to his 2016 funeral, including Rashid.

Shaan Taseer, left, is the son of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated in Islamabad in January 2011. (Courtesy of Shaan Taseer / Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

In an interview with Pakistani television news program On the Front, Rashid tried to downplay questions about whether his attendance was a tacit endorsement, arguing that even respected elders "left everything" to give tribute to Qadri. 

"Even people who didn't agree with him attended this funeral," he said. 

Last summer, Rashid told Pakistani media that Qadri's supporters are a political force that he would use to drive votes for the political party he founded, the Awami Muslim League. 

Taseer told CBC Toronto that Rashid's reluctance to denounce and distance himself from a murderer makes Toronto tour "extremely worrying.

"Calling him into the country, giving him a stage, and an opportunity to talk to people is only going to spread his views —nothing good is going to come from that," Taseer said.

Michael Rudder was a guest at Mumbai's Trident-Oberoi luxury hotel in November 2008 when gunmen stormed in and opened fire, leaving him with four bullet wounds. (CBC)

Montreal-based voice actor Michael Rudder was a guest at Mumbai's Trident-Oberoi luxury hotel in November 2008 when gunmen stormed in and opened fire. He was shot four times, and he watched as his friend Alan Scherr, 58, and Scherr's daughter Naomi, 13, died in front of his eyes. LeT took credit for the attack.

Rudder said he is surprised that Rashid would be welcomed to Canada. 

"The fact that a community is welcoming this man to Canada is utterly shocking to me," he told CBC Toronto. 

Organizer says talk 'a good opportuntiy'

Waqas Gondal, the publisher of the Urdu Times, says he's aware of the controversy surrounding Rashid, but that when he learned the political figure would be in Canada, he thought it would be "a good opportunity" for the newspaper's readers to meet him.

"They see him on TV all the time and they quite like him," Gondal said. "He's a politician, just like any other politician. People like them, people don't like them, people love them and people hate them."

Waqas Gondal is the publisher of Urdu Times, which hosted Monday's event. (Gary Morton/CBC)

As for the claims that Rashid may have links to a known terror group, Gondal dismissed them. 

"He's been minister with the Musharraf government, who's considered to be the most liberal government so far ever in Pakistan," he said. 

"He's been to India. People blame him for running the jihadi camps back in the 90s when the Kashmir conflict was going on. It's still on, but he was India last year to watch the cricket match. So all these things contradict each other," Gondal added.