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The trial of Kasab and unravelling of 26/11

May 02, 2010 09:10 AM IST India India

As judgement day comes closer, CNN-IBN unravels Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone terrorist captured alive during the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai. Kasab is perhaps the only man who could tell the real story behind the most audacious attack on the Indian republic.

Is Kasab an exploited, misguided youth or simply a ruthless, hardened terrorist? It's a question that has vexed the Mumbai Police immediately after they captured Kasab. Were there varying shades of character, a sign of a complicated personality or were they deliberate fronts put up to confuse and misguide his interrogators.

The attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 by 10 Pakistani terrorists were the worst terror strike in India. The terrorists targeted important landmarks of Mumbai killing at least 166 people and injuring several others. What was most stunning about the attack was the fact that the terrorists were not just trying to maximize the casualties, but were looking to take innocent people hostage. They stormed three important landmarks of Mumbai – the Taj Hotel, Oberoi Trident and the Nariman House – trapping several people and engaging the security forces including the elite commando force National Security Guards for several hours. While Mumbai Police had managed to kill one terrorist and arrest one more on the night of November 26, eight other terrorists could be neutralised only after 60 hours of gunfight.

The lone arrested terrorist, Kasab, became a prized possession in the hands of Indian investigators and intelligence agencies. Kasab was apprehended as he along with his accomplice was going in a hijacked silver Skoda car which was forced to stop at a police barricade on Girgaum Chowpatty. The police team there had little idea of the drama that would follow and how in the next couple of days the terror and diplomatic landscape of India would be altered.

Even as the carnage was unfolding across south Mumbai, Kasab was captured alive thanks to the sacrifice of ASI Tukaram Omble. It was a huge breakthrough as Kasab, a Pakistani national, professionally trained terrorist had been sent along with nine others with instructions to carry out the boldest terror attack on India ever. Within minutes of his questioning, officers realised what they were up against.

Kasab’s interrogation not only proved that Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba was behind the attacks, but he also claimed that some officer of Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, were also involved in the planning and execution of terror attacks, now know as 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

In the first hour of interrogation it was clear that the conspiracy had its roots in Pakistan, and the masterminds - known for running terror factories that churned out many Kasabs.,. Kasab said Laskar leaders Hafeez Sayeed, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, and other bosses at the Lashkar-e-Toiba's Muzaffarabad camp were happy with his training.

Interrogators soon found Kasab's background was ideal for Hafeez Saeed's recruitment needs. A primary school dropout, and daily wage labourer from village Faridkot in Punjab province's backward Okara district, Kasab tried to portray himself as a victim, pushed by poverty to join the terror mission against India.

An injured Kasab began describing how he joined the LeT in December 2007, one among many recruits given basic training - the Daura-e-Sufa. He made it to the second level, the Daura-e-Aam and the final level, Daura-e-Khas, in the jungles of Chelabandi Pahadi in Muzaffarabad for endurance training and to learn all about guerilla warfare.

Finally the 10 terrorists were divided into five pairs, each given specific locations to target. At dawn on November 23 they got their final words of motivation. Each was carrying a rucksack with AK-47, 7.65 mm pistol (two magazines each), a lot of loose rounds, hand grenades anywhere between 10 to a dozen, a lot of loose ammunition and dry fruits to sustain them during the seize period.

Kasab and his group sailed for three days on the high seas, using four different types of boats to get to Mumbai. The image of a vulnerable misguided young man fell away as this was a mission only hardened commando operatives could undertake.

Stunned, the interrogators could now establish that the terror team had sailed from Pakistan and had clinching evidence of Pakistani complicity in the attack, the horror of which, ironically, was playing out even as Kasab was being grilled.

Then came another chilling revelation. Kasab and his associates had killed five Indians even before landing in Mumbai. A fishing boat later identified as MV Kuber had been hijacked and four Indians killed instantly and the fifth Amarsingh Solanki kept hostage to help navigate the boat, only to be mercilessly murdered as the attackers approached Mumbai.

“They needed someone to navigate them right from where they boarded it in Pakistani waters upto Mumbai. Amar Singh Solanki was the tandel (the captain). So, he could do that task. Secondly, along the way, if they were stopped, they needed an Indian looking person to be there on board,” says Joint Commissioner of Mumbai Police Rakesh Maria.

After three days at sea the Kuber got close to Mumbai. It was Kasab who then beheaded the serious dark-faced faced Solanki and threw his body into the Kuber's engine room.

“As they reached four nautical miles off Mumbai, Amarsingh Solanki's utility was over and that’s when they spoke to the handlers and instructions were received that bakra kaat do (kill the goat),” says Rakesh Maria.

A few miles before the city's coast, the terrorists inflated a rubber dinghy and reached the shore undetected; and then, in pairs, moved off towards their targets.

Not much later Mumbai came under terror attack. 26/11 was upon us. First, Leopold's, a restaurant popular with foreigners, then the Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Oberoi Trident hotel on Marine Drive, a Jewish center at Nariman House and Mumbai's landmark Taj Hotel. There was shocking news that top anti-terror operation officers too had been killed. Kasab's interrogation would soon establish how the attack was planned.

The random firing by Kasab claimed over 50 lives at the Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus and top police officer - Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar and Ashok Kamte.

Unfortunately, his screeching Skoda was stopped only after Kasab's killing spree had claimed scores of lives.

As the security forces fought the terrorists inside the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House, the police were recording Kasab's confession while intelligence agencies were listening in on the chilling conversations between the terrorists and their Pakistani handlers.

The handlers were urging the terrorists to go on killing, to use their grenades, suggesting strategies and keeping up their morale. The conversations continued till the last terrorist was killed and confirmed what was emerging from Kasab's interrogation.

Kasab was Mumbai Police's prize catch, the man who could give live evidence unambiguously nailing Pakistani involvement.

In the days soon after 26/11, with public anger and media scrutiny on a high, Kasab's security was a key issue. The magistrate himself was called into the Crime Branch Headquarters to confirm Kasab's initial remands.

Intense questioning gradually yielded results. Investigators were able to match Kasab's DNA with articles seized from the Kuber, establishing his presence on the boat, confirming that he came to India by sea, linking him to five Indians murdered on the Kuber. On February 21, 2009, Kasab chose to voluntarily confess before a magistrate.

The government moved quickly. ML Tahiliyani was named special judge for the trial. The Arthur Road jail was selected, prepared and fortified for an unprecedented trial.

In the next the months the building saw round-the-clock activity. Over 50 officers in the Unit I office of the Crime Branch worked overtime to meet the 90-day deadline to file the all-important chargesheet.

Once ready, the chargesheet was 11,280 pages long, containing over 2,000 witness statements. Printing just 20 copies of the document took three dedicated photostat machines almost three full days.

A day later, Ujjwal Nikam, the man who led the prosecution in 1992 blasts cases, was appointed as the special public prosecutor, the man who would lead the trial against Kasab, Fahim Ansari and Sabauddin Ahmad. Moving swiftly, the chargesheet was filed just four days later.

Kasab was named in 312 counts, one of the highest numbers of charges ever, against an accused. So careful were the prosecutors that he was even booked for entering a railway platform without ticket.

Now in judicial custody, Kasab asked the court to let him meet Pakistani High Commission officials, but the Pakistanis did not respond. But determined to give Kasab a fair trial, the court chose Anjali Waghmare to defend Kasab.

It was the first act in the trial drama. Political protests and threats followed. Within days, Anjali Waghmare was removed on the grounds that she was also representing some of the victims of 26/11.

On April 16, 2009, Abbas Kazmi was appointed as the next defence counsel for Kasab. Kazmi soon gave the case its first twist, saying Kasab was still a minor, and so, could not be tried under the Indian Penal Code and asking for all charges to be dropped.

The judge was quick to order a medical examination which confirmed Kasab was an adult and fit to face trial on 86 counts.

A day later springing another surprise at his very first hearing, Kasab retracted his confession, denying everything he had said earlier.

The retraction caused a sensation in the media, but the legal process went ahead. Two days later, the first witness identified Kasab as one of the terrorists.

In coming months, 600 witnesses corroborated the charges, placing Kasab at the carnage, mowing down innocents with his AK-47. For many it was not easy seeing Kasab in court.

On June 25, the hearing turned into Kasab's medical bulletin. He claimed he was suffering from stomach ulcers. There was a worry that the defence may push this as evidence of Kasab being mistreated in custody. But it was soon clarified that Kasab had the ulcers even before he reached India.

Barely two months later Kasab startled the courtroom. He told judge Tahiliyani that he pleads guilty to all the charges. ‘Hang me’, were his words, as he once again detailed his journey, his handlers and his role in 26/11. Nikam called it a ploy.

A couple of months passed uneventfully with the routine of Nikam and Kazmi briefing media about the day's progress continued.

As the trial went on, those connected to the proceedings got a better look at Kasab and how he handled himself. Often, Kasab followed the hearings keenly. He also seemed interested in the people around him.

Kasab was very keen to have Urdu newspapers. In fact his lawyers had supplied him some Urdu story books, but he was not interested to read those story books because he wanted to know about the developments that had taken place after the 26/11 attack. He was very keen to know what was going on outside the jail.

Those were not the only demands that Kasab made.

But then came another twist as the court ordered the removal of defence counsel Kazmi on grounds of non-cooperation.

It appearedthat Kazmi had refused the court's suggestion of a specific number of witnesses for cross examination. But Kazmi was insisting on all of them. It meant yet another defence counsel had to be found. The job now went to little known KP Pawar, who became the third counsel to represent Kasab. Overnight Pawar acquired a ring of commandos around him, taking on the task of defending the indefensible.

Seven months into the trial, the prosecution finally wound up its case in the special court. There seemed to be no further roadblocks. Judge Tahiliyani fixed December 18 to record Kasab's statement.

On December 18, journalists lay in wait for Kasab to be brought in to record his statement. The courtroom was packed. But on D-day, Kasab gave the trial another twist, denying all charges yet again, saying his confession was extracted by force.

Kasab claimed he came to India on the Samjhauta Express to visit Bollywood. He claimed he was in Mumbai's Juhu area the night before the attack, and had gone to see a movie when he was picked up by the police.

He completely denied being at the Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus as people were being gunned down. He accused the police of killing the real terrorist and implicating him. He denied any knowledge of the dinghy he had identified earlier.

The theatrics continued. Kasab claimed he was a cook with a company called Saaraayee Alamghir and that he was forced to sign blank papers. After that came the mother of all claims - that all four terrorists who stormed the Taj Hotel were Indians.

On January 25, 2010 in yet another attempt to drag the case, Kasab told the special court he wanted to be tried by an international court. Predictably the appeal was rejected.

Soon after as news broke about the role of David Coleman Headley in the 26/11 attacks, there was yet another attempt to delay the trial. Kasab's co-accused Sabauddin Ahmed made a desperate plea that Headley be brought in as a court witness using video conferencing. Again, the plea was rejected.

Finally on March 23, 2010, after 189 days, the prosecution closed its arguments. Six hundred and seventy five pages of written arguments were submitted to the court, with the plea - Pakistani gunman Mohammed Ajmal Aamir Kasab and his two Indian associates, Faheem Ansari and Sabauddin Ahmed were guilty of slaughtering 166 innocents and they should be punished with death.

India's most elaborate criminal trial was also one of the fastest. May 3 is judgement day for the families of the victims who died in the carnage of 26/11, for the Mumbai Police force that lost some of its brave soldiers and indeed for the entire nation will wait as justice is finally delivered.