One Year After the Massacre, a Trial Plods On

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Sebastian D'souza / Mumbai Mirror / AP

The gunman identified by police as Mohammad Amir Ajmal Qasab walks through the Chatrapathi Sivaji Terminal railway station in Mumbai

On Thursday, India's bustling financial capital will mark the one-year anniversary of last year's three-day terrorist siege with a flag march through south Mumbai and the ceremonial re-opening of the iconic Taj Mahal Palace and Towers Hotel. But the trial of Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab will proceed as on any other day. Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam has called more than 270 witnesses over the last six months, and the last of them, including the main police investigator, are expected to appear on Nov. 26, the day the siege began a year ago. Nikam is already well-known after spending 13 years as the main prosecutor in the trial of the perpetrators of the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. In comparison, he says, this case will be completed in "record time." It began in mid-April, and a decision is expected within three months.

The biggest difference between the two trials, Nikam says, is that the Nov. 26 attacks were planned in Pakistan, and the terrorists involved tried to hide their nationality, carrying student ID cards from Indian colleges. On Wednesday, a police witness described visiting four Indian cities trying to verify the names and addresses on those IDs, only to find that they were false. "Qasab has exposed Pakistan," Nikam says. "The conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan."

That belief is central to Nikam's case, and he has spent months putting into evidence the satellite phone calls and financial records that Indian authorities say prove that the attacks were planned by a jihadi network based in Pakistan. U.S. investigators and U.S. citizens who witnessed the attacks gave testimony in Mumbai; Mumbai police also got help from American intelligence officials when they went to New Jersey to trace calls routed through a U.S.-based internet phone service. The Indian government has presented several dossiers of evidence to Pakistani authorities to prosecute defendants there. On Wednesday, an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan indicted seven people for planning the attacks, including Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, a leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based Islamist group and the suspected mastermind of the attacks.

The evidence against Qasab appears to be more straightforward. About 30 eyewitnesses placed Qasab at the scene, and he was captured on camera wielding a gun in Mumbai's main railway terminal during the first night of the attacks. Qasab faces the death penalty in India if convicted of the 86 charges against him, which include murder and waging war against India. He made only a brief appearance on Wednesday morning and asked to return to his cell, complaining that he was unwell. About three months into the trial, on July 20, Qasab stunned the court by changing his plea to guilty, but he now maintains his innocence. Two Indians, Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin Ahmed, are also on trial with him. They are accused of scouting out locations and doing early intelligence work for the Nov. 26 plotters, but were arrested months before the attacks as a result of other investigations.

Qasab's lawyer, Abbas Kazmi, says the case has been extraordinarily difficult. "There is overwhelming evidence, no doubt about that," he says. Kazmi has not been allowed to meet privately with his client since he was appointed in April, a breach of usual protocol. They can talk only during the proceedings, with Qasab leaning over the railings of the dock, making it difficult to establish any rapport. And from his office in Mumbai, there is little Kazmi can do to counter the reams of evidence detailing the alleged conspiracy in Pakistan. "Whenever there is something concerning my client, I take care of that," he says. His defense of Qasab has focused on poking holes in the evidence-gathering. He pointed out unsealed evidence bags, and a mobile-phone SIM card wrapper that did not appear to match the SIM card inside it. "This is all fabricated and planted by the police," Kazmi says.

Despite Kazmi's efforts, few in India expect anything other than a guilty verdict for Qasab. The widows of two top anti-terror officials who were killed in the attacks met with Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi on Nov. 23 and demanded the death penalty for Qasab, although the verdict is months away. Mumbaikars' interest in the trial has waned, although it spikes with the occasional dramatic moment, as when the testimony of the photographer who captured Qasab on film brought the defendant to tears.

On most days, however, the trial involves a fair amount of tedium. As one witness identified SIM cards, the judge, M.L. Tahiliani, read lists of mobile numbers into the record; a security officer from the Taj testified that he found a pistol, a magazine and an empty magazine in the debris of the hotel's Wasabi restaurant. The judge asked how to spell "wasabi" and what it means in Japanese, one of his frequent, meandering asides which he plays for laughs from the small audience of police officers and reporters in the courtroom. The atmosphere is markedly informal. The prosecutor goes over a witness' testimony as he delivers it; the defense and prosecution attorneys lean over to chat with each other during the proceedings. Qasab's co-defendants chat with the guards who surround them.

Perhaps they realize that the spotlight of this trial has already shifted away from Mumbai. India is putting intense diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to bring those accused to justice and lobbying its allies to do the same. What India most covets is the arrest and prosecution of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of LeT. Saeed was recently released from detention but has not been charged in connection with the Mumbai attacks.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor on Nov. 25, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "There is now impeccable evidence the conspiracy was planned in Pakistan. It was executed with the active connivance of people who are still roaming around freely in Pakistan. Therefore, I respectfully request the world community to use all its influence on Pakistan to desist from that sort of behavior." Those are strong words coming from the normally reticent Indian leader, and a signal of a harder line in the second year after Mumbai.