January 24, 2013 6:40 pm

Mumbai attack plotter jailed for 35 years

A US federal court has sentenced 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack plotter David Coleman Headley to 35 years in prison.

The relatively lenient sentence will further aggrieve the Indian government, which had objected to the US decision not to seek the death penalty or extradite Headley.

Prosecutors had asked the federal judge for a sentence less than life because Headley provided information of “substantial value”. He gave details on the inner workings of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba militant outfit, which has been blamed for the attacks, as well as details on future attacks and on terrorists linked to al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s intelligence service. At 52, Headley will probably die in jail.

Headley, the Washington-born son of a Pakistani diplomat and an American, spent two years casing Mumbai for the attacks, which killed 166 people and wounded hundreds more during a three-day assault that shocked the country. He began plotting an attack on Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper before being arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 2009.

Former US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Headley before retiring, said in court that he was appearing in order to honour a commitment the government had made to put before the court “the unusual nature of how quickly he co-operated and how he continued to co-operate knowing full well that he didn’t need to”.

Headley did not make a statement in court, but his defence attorney said his co-operation “saved lives”.

US District Judge Harry Leinenweber said that in light of the horrific nature of his crimes, the easiest sentence for Headley would be death, or perhaps life in prison. The judge said he did not believe Headley’s statement in a handwritten letter “that he’s a changed person and believes in the American way of life”.

“Frankly, the recommended sentence of 35 years is not a light sentence, and . . . I’m hopeful it will keep Mr Headley under lock and key for the rest of his natural life”

- US District Judge Harry Leinenweber

“Frankly, the recommended sentence of 35 years is not a light sentence, and . . . I’m hopeful it will keep Mr Headley under lock and key for the rest of his natural life,” he said.

India’s government has continued to protest against the unwillingness of American authorities to extradite Headley following his trial in Chicago, where he would likely face calls to receive the death penalty if convicted in Indian courts.

Minister for external affairs Salman Khurshid this week said: “It is disappointing, undoubtedly it is disappointing but we understand that they have a legal structure which has to be adhered to. We were anxious and we were wishing that the trial takes place here,” according to Press Trust of India.

In November, the only surviving Pakistani gunman from the 2008 attacks, Mohammed Kasab, was executed after an earlier trial, following the rejection of pleas for clemency.

Acceptance of capital punishment in cases of terrorism is widespread among India’s public and political leadership, although Mr Kasab’s was India’s first use of the death penalty in close to a decade.

Proceedings in Chicago have been watched closely in India, where the three-day Mumbai attacks shocked the public, both for the audacity of the assault and the seeming incompetence of the state in its response to the violence.

“The newspapers here are following this case closely, it will be a page one story for sure,” says Manu Joseph, a novelist and editor of the Indian weekly news magazine Open. “And they have been following it with a clear editorial stand that Headley has to be extradited and handed over to India.”

Although relations between India and Pakistan have improved markedly since the attacks, the ruling comes at a tense moment for the two nuclear-armed powers, given recent clashes along the border of the disputed territory of Kashmir, in which India claims at least one of its soldiers was beheaded by Pakistani forces.

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