Stakes High for India in Emotionally Charged Mumbai Trial

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 22, 2009

MUMBAI -- Grainy images of men wielding AK-47s riveted a packed courtroom here one day last week as the public prosecutor rolled soundless video footage from November's deadly attacks on the city.

"Here they come! Here they come!" Ujjwal Nikam said, pointing out to the judge the two gunmen caught on tape by a Mumbai train station's surveillance camera.

A few feet from him, a diminutive, barefoot man in an oversize gray T-shirt squinted at the screen. After the chaotic scenes of gunfire and panic faded, he rubbed his eyes, stretched his legs, leaned back and stared blankly.

Pakistani-born Ajmal Amir Kasab, 21, is accused of being one of the two assailants caught on film at the train station, where 48 people died. He is also the only alleged gunman captured alive during the terrifying three days beginning Nov. 26, when 10 men arrived in Mumbai by boat and attacked 10 sites, including two five-star hotels and a Jewish outreach center, killing more than 170 people. His trial, on charges of terrorism, criminal conspiracy and waging war against the state, began two months ago, and the stakes could not be higher for India.

For years, the government in New Delhi has accused Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups of fomenting terrorist attacks in India. But this is the first time a Pakistani national has been arrested and brought to justice after police said he was caught on camera engaging in terrorist activities.

Many Indians resent this elaborate trial and the security apparatus set up to protect Kasab, saying there is enough evidence to execute him now -- the penalty he will face if convicted. The pressure of public opinion kept lawyers from coming forward to represent him for weeks. But set against the weight of domestic anger is the opportunity the government is seizing to remind the world that India is a liberal democracy with an independent judiciary.

"After Kasab, I am the most hated man in India for defending him," said Abbas Kazmi, Kasab's attorney. "People say he should be hanged right away. But to me, he is innocent until proven guilty in court. The world is watching us. They will see how India offers a fair trial to even a so-called terrorist."

Every day, Kasab sits in the courtroom dock to face a succession of eyewitnesses who say they saw him shoot passengers, policemen and railroad workers.

"We have presented forensic evidence, eyewitnesses, documents, photographs and television footage in court so far," said Nikam, the prosecutor. "We will also present the intercepts of the telephone conversation between the terrorists and their Pakistani bosses during the attacks."

An FBI team would be called to testify, as well, Nikam said.

The trial, which is drawing criticism here for its deliberate pace, is actually moving with surprising speed for a country where cases have been known to languish for years in overburdened courts. Of the 2,000 available witnesses, the prosecution plans to call 150 in court -- and 68 of those have been called already.

"This is one of the fastest trials in our history," said Deven Bharti, a deputy police commissioner in Mumbai and one of Kasab's interrogators. "This court has not even taken the month-long summer vacation, like other courts in India."

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