Praveen Swami

As Mumbai trial begins, no word from Islamabad on prosecution of terror commanders

NEW DELHI: Even as the trial of Mohammad Ajmal Amir begins in a Mumbai court, there is still no word on when — and if — Pakistan intends to initiate criminal proceedings against the Lashkar-e-Taiba commanders who ordered the November carnage in Mumbai.

Last month, Islamabad submitted a 30-point questionnaire to New Delhi, in response to a formal dossier of evidence handed over by India. For the most part, the questionnaire sought evidence that will be needed for a possible criminal trial of Lashkar terrorists in that country.

But, government sources told The Hindu, several elements of the questionnaire have caused disquiet — among them, thinly-veiled insinuations that evidence was tampered with and allegations that the role of Indian nationals in facilitating the attack were being glossed over.

Notably, not one question is a follow-on from the questioning of Lashkar commanders arrested in Pakistan, like Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, Zarar Shah or Hammad Amin Sadiq — raising concerns that Islamabad has no intention of helping to dismantle the terror group’s infrastructure and operational assets in India.

Evidence tampering

Pakistan has, in the questionnaire, raised the prospect that Indian authorities could have padded up evidence to buttress its claims that Pakistani nationals were involved in the attacks.

While India’s dossier records that the “terrorists started in the small boat from Karachi at approximately 8 a.m. on November 22, 2008,” the questionnaire observes that appendices in the document show the Global Positioning System used by the terrorists was active off the shore of Keti Bandar near Karachi at 6.54 a.m. that day.

Noting, in addition, that date and time stamps were not appended to all the GPS entries in the dossier, the questionnaire suggests that it is unclear if India’s data is “authentic or created.” On point of fact, it is unclear that there is a mystery to be resolved. The GPS set used by the terrorists was on board the merchant ship, al-Husaini, which the terrorists boarded after rowing out to sea. More likely than not, one of the Lashkar operatives already on board al-Husaini tested the GPS set prior to the arrival of the terror unit on board — an issue Pakistani investigators ought to have been able to resolve by questioning the suspects in their custody.

Mumbai police officials note, moreover, that if the Pakistan investigators have real doubts about the authenticity of the GPS data, they could have sought access to the original records from the manufacturer of the set, Garmin, or through the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Elsewhere, the questionnaire seeks to establish empirical foundations for Islamabad’s claims that India is seeking to gloss over the role of its own nationals in the attacks.

Based on the proposition that Google Earth does not offer information on building interiors, Pakistan’s questionnaire asserts that the attack was preceded by “extensive physical surveillance” — a task most likely carried out by Indian Lashkar supporters.

Even leaving aside the fact that the terrorists did not in fact demonstrate familiarity with the interiors of their targets, though, Pakistan’s question has still perplexed Indian investigators.

“Pakistan,” notes a senior Mumbai police official, “has the principal conspirators in its custody. It should be telling us who in India, if anyone, provided pre-attack logistics support to the terrorists, not asking us for information.”

Polemical questions

Even though the questionnaire does not seek information on the Malegaon bombings — as earlier reported in sections of the Pakistani media — it does raise several polemical points.

Pakistan has sought an explanation, for example, why the terrorists’ maritime movements did not come to the attention of the Gujarat and Maharashtra governments and how their ship escaped the attention of India’s costal radar defences.

Given that Pakistan’s investigators are well aware that the terrorists reached Mumbai in a hijacked Indian fishing boat — a fact India’s dossier of evidence makes clear — the question is mystifying.

Some evidence Pakistan has asked for simply does not exist. For example, the Pakistani questionnaire seeks a legally-attested copy of Ajmal’s confessional statement. Since Ajmal has not been prosecuted under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, there is none.

Union government sources have told The Hindu that a court in Pakistan will have to issue a legal instrument known as Letter Rogatory seeking the information requested in the questionnaire — among other things, transcripts of satellite and mobile phone calls between the terrorists and their handlers in Karachi, forensic analysis, fingerprints, closed circuit television footage, photograph, as well as DNA profiles and post-mortem reports.

Mumbai sessions judge ML Tahiliani will then have to decide how much of this evidence can be made available, and when. In the meanwhile, the sources said, some information, like call records, have already been informally passed on to Pakistan by FBI officials involved in the Mumbai investigation.

No word has been received, though, on Pakistan’s planned course of action.

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