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Death for Kasab

Print edition : Jun 04, 2010 T+T-
November 26, 2008, Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus: Mohammed Ajmal Kasab (in picture) and his accomplice Ismail Khan go on the shooting spree in which 52 people were killed.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/MUMBAI MIRROR, FILE/AP

November 26, 2008, Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus: Mohammed Ajmal Kasab (in picture) and his accomplice Ismail Khan go on the shooting spree in which 52 people were killed.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/MUMBAI MIRROR, FILE/AP

MOHAMMED AJMAL AMIR KASAB wanted to be famous and die a martyr, or so he told his interrogators. The only terrorist to be caught alive during the terror attacks on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, Kasab did become famous when a brave news photographer captured those horrific moments when he and his partner, Ismail Khan, went on a killing spree at the Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).

That gun-wielding image of Kasab, beamed across the world, became the face of terror that night when a band of 10 fidayeen stormed two luxury hotels, the CST, a Jewish religious centre and Leopold Cafe, all in South Mumbai, and killed at least 173 people and injured several hundreds. Kasab and Ismail were held responsible for 52 of these deaths.

When Kasab spoke about martyrdom what he had in mind was what his handlers told him, which was that he would be laying down his life for his country and would, therefore, be regarded a martyr, and this would bring his family immense respect.

On May 7, trial Judge M.L. Tahaliyani sentenced Kasab to death by hanging. You have been sentenced to death on four counts. You will be hanged by the neck till you are dead. Yeh hamara tareeka hai (This is our way), said the judge. He said Kasab had been found guilty of waging war against India and committing terror acts including murder. Additionally, the judge declared him guilty of the murder of 166 persons during the terror onslaught. Two persons from Mumbai, Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin Ahmed, accused of helping the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to which Kasab owes allegiance, were acquitted for lack of evidence.

Kasab's conviction was predictable, said many observers. But when it came to Ansari and Ahmed, the feeling was that the Mumbai Police were unable to put together a substantive case against them despite intelligence reports stating that the two were the LeT's local contacts.

Judge Tahaliyani dismissed the evidence produced by the Mumbai Police linking the duo to the attackers a map found on one terrorist, the police said, was given by Ansari and Ahmed. Tahaliyani said the map was not genuine. If it was it would have been crumpled, which is the natural thing to happen to paper inside a pocket, he said. Once this argument was thrown out by the judge, it became clear that the Mumbai Police had no insights into the 26/11 attacks.

Kasab's conviction does not close the 26/11 case. If the Bombay High Court upholds his death sentence, Kasab can appeal in the Supreme Court. The apex court will again look at all the aspects of the case and give its verdict. If it upholds the death penalty, Kasab can file a mercy petition before the President under Article 72 of the Constitution. Should he appeal in the Supreme Court, he would join a queue of high-profile death row convicts who have filed mercy petitions.

He could become another Afzul Guru, who attacked Parliament House in December 2001 and was to be executed in October 2006 but was given a stay. Or, he could be a Nalini, accused of helping Rajiv Gandhi's assassins, whose death sentence was commuted to life sentence. Or, he could end up being hanged like Indira Gandhi's assassins Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh, who were sent to the gallows five years after their crime.

In court

When Judge Tahaliyani read out the death sentence, Ajmal Kasab showed no emotion. He sat still in the dock with his head bent as the judge gave the reasons why it was necessary to hand out the harshest possible sentence under Indian law. Kasab declined to make a statement when the judge gave him a chance to speak before his sentence was read out.

In the initial days of the trial, which began in April last year, Kasab showed no remorse. He would often smile or attempt to chat with co-accused Ansari and Ahmed. He would survey those present in the court, particularly witnesses and mediapersons. After the judge pulled him up, Kasab stopped his antics. Prone to mood swings, he would keep his head down or his face rested in his hands most of the time.

After the sentence was read out, Kasab was whisked away to a bullet- and bomb-proof cell constructed specially for him. The judge then observed, This man has lost the right to get any humanitarian relief.

He added that given the depravity of Kasab's crimes, any chance of his reform or rehabilitation was totally ruled out. Referring to the 1999 Kandahar plane hijacking case, where militants in jail in India were traded for passengers held hostage aboard Indian Airlines flight IC-814, Tahaliyani said: Keeping him alive would be a constant danger to government and the state.

Furthermore, he said, any man who waged war against India forfeited his life to the Indian state. In Kasab's case, he joined the LeT voluntarily and the evidence collected showed that he seemed anxious to attack. Brutality was writ large on Kasab's face when he fired indiscriminately at people, the judge said and added that the world was witness to his remorseless violent expression, which was captured in the photographs of Kasab at the CST. The gunmen came prepared to die and die they will, he said.

The Supreme Court has said that while sentencing a man to death, the judge must prepare a balance sheet of mitigating and aggravating circumstances. In Kasab's case, Tahaliyani said he could not find a single mitigating factor. Everything is in favour of the prosecution, he said, declaring the death penalty as the only option.

Major role

Kasab played a major role in the entire attack. It was he who beheaded the navigator of the fishing trawler by slitting his throat in an absolutely inhuman and ruthless manner, says the charge sheet. He and his buddy, Ismail, attacked the CST, killing 52 people. They were also responsible for ambushing Anti-Terrorist Squad chief Hemant Karkare's car and killing him and two senior police officers, Vijay Salaskar and Ashok Khamte, near the Cama and Albless Hospital. While escaping they shot at bystanders at Metro Cinema, killing one constable.

Judge Tahaliyani's judgment ran into 1,522 pages and is divided into sections and has tables. It methodically documents evidence and testimonies. To begin with, the judge closely examined the 11,280-page charge sheet filed by the Mumbai Police on the attacks. Further, he accepted Kasab's confessional statement before a magistrate, but emphasised that he had matched it with corroborative evidence.

The judge said that during the trial, 3,192 pages of evidence was recorded. Of the approximately 658 witnesses who were examined, 296 deposed in court. Among them, 30 identified Kasab as the man who opened fire on them at the CST. An additional 357 witnesses were examined via affidavit.

Footage from CCTVs and photographs taken during the 60-hour siege assisted in the verdict. Additionally, the prosecution, led by Ujjwal Nikam, submitted 1,015 articles seized during the investigation. For the first time in India's judicial history, officers of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) deposed in an Indian court to give technical evidence. They stated that the masterminds of the attacks used Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to carry out the mission. Data collected were traced to LeT cells in Pakistan, the FBI officers said.

Reactions

Reactions to his sentencing were strong and emotional. A book vendor whose colleague was shot by either Kasab or Ismail said: Death by hanging is the only way to teach this man and others like him a lesson. Kavita Karkare, wife of Hemant Karkare, told the media: We should hang Kasab publicly and we should not give him a chance to go to the Supreme Court.

I am very happy that Kasab has been awarded the death sentence. I welcome the sentence. He deserves it, said Vaishali Ombale, daughter of Tukaram Ombale, a policeman who was singularly responsible for capturing the gunman but lost his life while doing so.

The son (who prefers anonymity) of a prominent Mumbai banker who was killed in one of the targeted hotels had been critical of the slowness of the trial. After the conviction, he said: It does not bring closure but at least India has shown the world we mean business. The banker was among a group of men and women who were lined up and shot at point-blank range at The Oberoi hotel.

The trial

The trial, in the case, perhaps the fastest in a terrorism-related case in India, had its ups and downs. Commencing on May 8, 2009, it was what many criminal lawyers called an open-and-shut case. It was purely symbolic because Indian law requires that we give the criminal a fair trial before sentencing him, said a lawyer.

Yet the trial did take a year when most lawyers believed it would not take more than six months. Problems began at the very start when no lawyer volunteered to defend the terrorist. The court finally appointed Anjali Waghmare but she was soon removed on a technicality. Abbas Kazmi, who replaced her and stood as defence for the bulk of the trial, was removed suddenly for not cooperating with the court. Both incidents delayed the proceedings.

Kasab himself tried to obstruct the trial by claiming he was a juvenile. The court rejected his plea when tests of his DNA samples proved that he was 21 years old at the time of the attacks. Midway through the trial he retracted his confessional statement, saying he had been under duress while speaking and was in fact not guilty. Eventually, his lawyer, K.P. Pawar, argued that Kasab was actually innocent and had been picked up by the police at Chowpatty a few days before the attack. A completely bizarre defence that clearly led nowhere, said a witness in court.

Kasab joins a long line of foot soldiers caught operating for larger jehadi militant groups such as the LeT, whose masterminds remain at large. His case illustrates how a poor and vulnerable young man easily succumbs to inducements such as money and weapons training from those who want to further their agenda of hate. He is deeply indoctrinated. Although he doesn't know much about pure Islam, he has been brainwashed into hating India, said current ATS chief Rakesh Maria, who was a part of the interrogation team.

Kasab also told his interrogators that his family would be paid Rs.1.5 lakh if he succeeded in this mission. Additionally, he would be regarded a martyr and that would bring respect to his family and village.

Lawyers, human right activists and those following the case say there are no excuses for what Kasab did. He deserves what he gave. Yet the fact is that he is only a foot soldier. The generals need to be caught for justice to be complete.