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Trial and farce: How Pak ensured 26/11 mastermind Lakhvi walks free

Trial was in-camera, judges were changed eight times and Ajmal Kasab's testimony was not considered.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2015 21:37 IST
Rezaul H Laskar
Rezaul H Laskar
Hindustan Times

For anyone who has tracked Pakistan's trial of the seven men charged with involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the release on bail of Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi wouldn't have come as a surprise. It is probably a surprise that he didn't walk out of jail any sooner.

Lakhvi, 55, was captured about a week after the brazen attacks on India's financial hub when Pakistani soldiers raided a LeT camp on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. A few months later, he and six others were charged with planning, financing and executing the assault that left 166 dead and hundreds injured.

After the UN Security Council declared the Jamaat-ud-Dawah a front for the LeT in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistan government moved to seal JuD offices across the country and placed several leaders, including Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, under house arrest. Several ministers, including then Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, claimed the JuD had been banned.

But when Saeed challenged his detention a few months later in the Lahore High Court, the truth emerged in the open - the JuD hadn't even been banned and was merely on the Interior Minister's "watch list". Saeed was then released from house arrest.

Similarly, the trial of the seven suspects in the Mumbai attacks case has been shrouded in confusion and proceeded at a snail's pace.

Since the trial began in early 2009, the hearings have been conducted in-camera or behind closed doors for reasons of security, making it virtually impossible for the media to get a true picture of the proceedings.

In the six years since the trial began, the judge has been changed eight times, with each change necessitating delays as the new judge acquainted himself with the details of the case. In at least one case, a judge asked to be taken off the case because of threats to his life from extremist elements.

Lakhvi and the other suspects, including LeT members who handled funds that were used for buying boats, engines and VoIP accounts, were defended by some of the most expensive lawyers. At one point of time, the suspects were being defended by a former advocate general of Punjab province who was also the counsel for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's family in a string of graft cases.

These lawyers made effective use of Pakistani laws to stymie the use of evidence provided by India and the US against the suspects, particularly intercepts of the attackers in Mumbai allegedly being guided by handlers based in Karachi, including Lakhvi. Pakistani laws do not allow authorities to obtain voice samples without the permission of suspects and this has been used by Lakhvi's counsel to deny the use of a crucial piece of evidence.

Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving attacker, identified Lakhvi during his interrogation by Indian security officials as "Zakki chacha", the man who indoctrinated the ten terrorists sent to assault Mumbai. But Kasab's confession and statements too could not be used in the Pakistani court after the defence lawyers claimed they hadn't been given access to him to cross-examine him.

Lakhvi, who became the operations commander of the LeT in the late 1990s, was born in Okara district of Punjab province, also the home district of Kasab. In 1990, he joined Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith and later became part of the LeT. He is believed to be a close relative of Saeed, the founder of the LeT.

During the 1990s, Lakhvi worked at the LeT's main 'markaz' or centre near Muridke on the outskirts of Lahore. He was also involved in fighting and planning militant activities in Jammu and Kashmir at this time.

And while the trial dragged on, Lakhvi never lost his grip on the operations of the LeT. According to Pakistani media reports, Lakhvi and the other suspects lived in luxury in several rooms next to the jailer's office at the sprawling Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, receiving up to 100 visitors a day without any supervision by prison officials.

Lakhvi had unfettered access to mobile phones and the internet, allowing him to direct the day-to-day activities of the LeT. Lakhvi's youngest wife was also allowed to stay with him in jail and he fathered a child sometime in 2010 as a result of these conjugal visits, according to Abu Jundal alias Zabiuddin Ansari, the Indian LeT operative who was deported from Saudi Arabia in 2012.

The Mumbai attacks trial suffered a huge setback when Chaudhry Zulfiqar, the fearless prosecutor hired by the Federal Investigation Agency to handle the case, was assassinated in Islamabad in May 2013. Though most media reports suggested his killing was linked to his role as prosecutor in the Benazir Bhutto assassination case, it would be hard to ignore the fact that it came weeks after key prosecution witnesses identified the suspects who had bought the boats and engine used by the terrorists in the Mumbai attacks.

Given that Pakistan's anti-terror courts have been unable to prosecute most of the men arrested for brazen and audacious attacks - in fact, most of them have been set free for lack of evidence - it would be highly unlikely to expect a verdict against Lakhvi or the other suspects any time soon.

(The writer was posted as the PTI correspondent in Islamabad during 2007-13 and closely followed the Mumbai attacks trial. Views expressed by the writer are personal. Tweet to him @rezhasan.)

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