Mumbai Terrorist Trial Begins in India

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Indranil Mukherjee / AFP /Getty Images

Indian lawyer Abbas Kazmi stands outside the special bomb-proof court at Arthur Road jail in Mumbai, India, on April 16, 2009

Accused Mumbai terrorist Mohammad Amir Ajmal Qasab whose trial began Wednesday in Mumbai, was appointed a new lawyer today after his first lawyer was dismissed for a potential conflict of interest. The new lawyer, who was appointed by the court will be paid an undisclosed special fee given the unusual circumstances of the trial.

Qasab, barely five feet tall but with powerful shoulders under his loose, long sleeved t-shirt, appeared in court this morning with two other co-accused, Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin, inside the Arthur Road jail complex. Qasab, a Pakistani national, was the only surviving suspect from the Nov. 26 attacks on Mumbai that killed about 170 people; Ansari and Sabahuddin, who are Indian, were arrested separately and are accused of helping to plan the attacks. All three of them were barefoot and wore the same clothes as they did yesterday, sitting together on a bench in one corner of the courtroom, on a raised platform behind a wooden railing. (See pictures of Mumbai picking up the pieces after the attacks.)

Qasab has been in custody since Nov. 26, the first night of the attacks. Ansari, who was arrested last February, was found to be carrying a rough drawing of Mumbai landmarks. Sabahuddin, who was arrested for allegedly planning a bomb targeting Bangalore's Indian Institute of Sciences, is accused of doing legwork for the Mumbai attack. Both were brought to Mumbai late last year to be tried jointly with Qasab.

The morning session began with yet another major complication: the court-appointed lawyer for Ansari and Sabahuddin, Ijaz Naqvi, had not shown up. The judge, M. L. Tahiliani, spoke out loud to Ansari and instructed him to have his wife, Yasmin, call the lawyer to find out what happened. Naqvi had appeared in court yesterday and apparently had not informed the judge or any other court official of the reason for his absence. The judge grew irritated and seemed to imply that Ansari was somehow withholding information about the reasons for his lawyer's absence. "I don't know what has happened between the defendant [Ansari] and his lawyer," Tahiliani said. "Once he appoints them, then he dismisses them. I can't allow this to continue."

Ansari, dressed in a matching beige and gray track suit and polo shirt, stared at his wife during most of the proceedings. A delicate, petite woman wearing a long gray and black robe and a black flowered headscarf, Yasmin Ansari addressed the court twice this morning on behalf of her husband, speaking firmly but slightly nervously in Urdu from behind the veil covering her face. "I am trying," she said, when questioned by the judge about her efforts to find a new lawyer for her husband. Fahim Ansari has previously expressed his wish to find his own lawyer, but complained that the court had not given him and his wife enough time or opportunity to find one. Addressing the two of them, Tahiliani said, "The court has made all these security arrangements, we've given you all kind of liberties and help." He then adjourned the proceedings for about 45 minutes, to allow Yasmin Ansari to find out whether Naqvi would be coming later in the day.

In the interval, the judge spoke to several lawyers who had appeared in court offering to represent Qasab, including one who said he came to court because he had read in the newspaper that Qasab needed a lawyer. Yesterday, Tahiliani dismissed Anjali Waghamare, his earlier lawyer, for a potential conflict of interest, as she had discussed representing a victim in the attacks, who is also expected to appear as a witness for the prosecution. When the proceedings resumed, the judge announced that he had appointed Abbas Kazmi as Qasab's new lawyer. "I am willing," Kazmi said. Tahiliani named another lawyer, A.A. Walwalkar, as a back-up for the other two defendants in case Naqvi does not show up. (See pictures retracing Qasab's steps from Pakistan to Mumbai.)

The question of Kazmi's fee was then the subject of a heated exchange. Kazmi had made a request for a special undisclosed fee, different from what would normally be granted to a court-appointed lawyer in Mumbai — Rs. 900 (about $18) for the entire case. The fee is shockingly small even by the standards of India's poorly paid junior lawyers, but the prosecutor in the case, Ujwal Nikam, objected vehemently to Kazmi's request. He argued that making an exception would encourage other court-appointed lawyers to demand special fees in future cases. Qasab's lawyer was supposed to be chosen from the state of Maharashtra's 17-member legal aid panel, but so far two lawyers from the panel have stepped down, and no others have volunteered. "The legal aid panel will be redundant," Nikam argued. Tahiliani, however disagreed, agreeing to an undisclosed additional payment, which he said should not be considered a precedent and referred to two cases in other states in which defendants were given to lawyers outside the normal process.

Before adjourning for lunch, Tahiliani directly addressed the three defendants and informed them of the changes in their representation. Qasab agreed and smiled at his new lawyer. He had watched the day's proceedings calmly, occasionally staring off into space and sometimes laughing when everyone else in the courtroom laughed. With a shaggy beard and hair that covered his ears and forehead, Qasab, 21, looked older than he appears in the globally circulated pictures captured of him during the Mumbai attacks, when he walked through the city's main railway station in cargo pants, brandishing weapons. Sabahuddin, 25, a head taller than Qasab, extremely thin and wearing a bushy beard and close-cropped hair, also agreed to his new representation. He filled the time during lulls in the proceedings by reading a January issue of the newsmagazine India Today, at one point apparently engrossed in a story about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's health. In the end, Ansari, 35, also agreed to the judge's decision.

Later today, the prosecution will submit a description of how its case will be presented: Each of 12 incidents during the attacks will be treated separately, with its own investigation file prepared by the police station in which the incident occurred, as well as a common investigation file conducted by the Mumbai Crime Branch. Opening arguments are expected to begin tomorrow.

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