Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative David Coleman Headley said on Thursday Maharashtra resident Ishrat Jahan was a member of the militant group’s female wing, igniting a row over a controversial 2004 police shootout that killed the 19-year-old woman.
A Gujarat Police team shot dead Jahan – a college student in Thane district’s Mumbra -- and three others on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, claiming she was on a mission to kill then chief minister Narendra Modi.
Headley’s comments are in contrast to multiple investigations that found the shootout had been staged and that Jahan had no links with any militant group.
Six years ago, Headley – who is deposing in a Mumbai court via video conference – reportedly told the National Investigation Agency that Jahan was an LeT member but Thursday’s remarks will now be admissible as evidence in an ongoing trial into the killing of Jahan.
The day’s proceedings saw Headley saying the LeT had a female wing, headed by the mother of a militant, Abu Aiman.
“Are you aware of any female suicide bomber from the LeT?” asked Ujjwal Nikam, the special public prosecutor.
Headley said he did not know any such woman but “Zaki Saheb” (LeT’s operational commander Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi) had told him about a botched operation in India.
“It was a shoot-out with police in some picket, and a female member had died in it along with others,” Headley said, adding, “I do not remember the name of the place.”
When Nikam asked about the woman’s name, Headley said he did not remember. But, when the prosecutor suggested three different names – Noorjehan Begum, Ishrat Jahan and Mumtaj Begum -- the 56-year-old said “I think it was the second one, Ishrat Jahan.”
But Jahan’s family rejected the charges, saying she was not a terrorist and that Headley’s testimony wasn’t reliable as he was a “terrorist”.
“We have fought for 12 years, and we will still fight to clear Ishrat’s name,” her sister Mussarat Jahan told HT.
The family’s lawyer, Vrindra Grover, dismissed the testimony as “extremely manipulative”.
“The lawyer put words in Headley’s mouth,” she said.
“Lawyer acts like he is hosting ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ and gave Headley options. I mean, what is happening in the court?”
The development triggered a political storm, with the BJP saying its stand has been vindicated after a decade.
“An important confirmation of a fact that has been in public circulation for a long time. Headley pointed towards Ishrat in 2013 but at that time there was attempt to not accept truth as it was,” BJP leader Nalin Kohli told ANI.
The Congress appeared to question the revelation.
“Many people said it’s a deal that was made - that Headley will name Jahan as a terrorist, needs far more probing; it’s suspicious,” Congress leader Sandeep Dixit said.
The shootout was first questioned in 2009 when Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate SP Tamang called it staged, based on medical and forensic reports.
His inquiry named the 21 policemen and alleged Mumbai police kidnapped Jahan and the other three men –Javed Ghulam Sheikh, Zeeshan Johar and Ajmad Ali Akbar Ali Rana – on June 12, 2004 while Gujarat police killed them on July 14.
Subsequent probes by a special investigation team and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) found no connection between Jahan and any militant group.
But in an affidavit before the Gujarat high court, the Union home ministry said the Intelligence Bureau received specific inputs in 2004 about the LeT planning to assassinate some national and state-level leaders.
The affidavit was filed after Jahan’s mother moved a petition, demanding a CBI probe into the alleged fake encounter. The case is being heard by a trial court in Mumbai.