Jihadi confession rocks India, Pakistan
NEW DELHI - Just hours after the visiting United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had praised the "sincerity" of Islamabad's anti-terrorism policies, a Pakistani dramatically confessed to taking part in one of the worst terror attacks in India, that in Mumbai last November.
Mohammad Ajmal Amir "Kasab", the lone surviving gunman of the 10 that killed 166 people in a three-day rampage across the city, on Monday after 65 days on trial for among other things murder and waging war against India suddenly reversed his not-guilty plea with the words, "Mujhe gunha kabool hai." (I admit to the crime). "I want to confess," the 21-year-old said to a stunned courtroom.
The Mumbai attack, which from the outset India blamed on Pakistanis, severely strained relations between the two countries, especially as Islamabad initially refused to acknowledge any Pakistan connection. Delhi froze peace talks that were at the time underway between the fractious, nuclear-armed neighbors.
However, last week the Pakistan government handed over a dossier to India providing evidence of the role in the attack played by the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and also named Kasab as a participant.
Kasab said on Monday he had decided to change his plea - even his lawyers did not know he was going to - as a result of this development, "Please accept my confession, close the case and give the sentence," he said, clearly feeling betrayed by his country.
The strange twist in the case will certainly ease tension between Delhi and Islamabad. The former will feel vindicated in its early finger-pointing, while the latter can use its cooperation as an example of what Clinton described as Pakistan's "commitment to fighting terrorism that permeates the entire government".
Judge M L Tahilyani adjourned the case to allow prosecutors time to study the confession. The charges carry the death sentence.
Following the confession, in a chilling account, Kasab told of his part in the attack that targeted two luxury hotels, a Jewish center, a restaurant popular with tourists, a hospital and the main railway terminal. The men carried automatic guns, grenades and explosives.
Kasab and a partner (Abu Ismail) had been assigned to kill people in and around the railway station. "I was firing and Abu was hurling hand grenades ... I fired at a policeman after which there was no firing from the police side," Kasab said.
From the railway station, where they killed more than 50 people, the two went to Cama Hospital, killing more. They then went to Chowpatty beach, where Abu was killed and Kasab was captured after a shootout with police.
Kasab also named four members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba whom he said saw off the gunmen from the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Among them was Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, chief of operations for Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lakhvi had been identified by India as the attack's chief plotter.
Kasab said it was his desire to get rich quickly as a trained robber that took him down the path of terrorism as he was introduced to jihadis in his quest to receive "specialist" training.
No sooner had Kasab confessed than the media and pundits were abuzz with theories about his sudden decision. According to one theory, the admission was the result of a hush-hush meeting with a senior Maharashtra state minister who told him that it was futile to fight the case as Pakistan had disowned him and his family. According to this theory, when the minister asked Kasab why he had become a terrorist, he stated, "Our leaders in Pakistan kept telling us that Indians were responsible for the blasts in our country, and so we had to take revenge."
According to another theory, Kasab preferred death in India as he was shocked by Pakistan's decision to prosecute five alleged accomplices.
Public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam reacted by calling Kasab's confession a "ploy" because, according to him, at this late stage - eight months after the attack and 65 days into the trial - the gunman has forfeited his right to plead guilty.
Questions will also be asked over any possible coercion. Soon after being captured, he admitted to the attacks, then he changed his mind, saying he had been pressured.
Pakistan's Defense Minister Chaudhary A Mukhtar told an Indian TV channel, "The statements are one-sided and they were made by a person who is under the custody of Indian jail authorities. If he has stood up and given this statement, I don't know under what pressure he was."
Despite these reservations, the acrimony between Pakistan and India caused by the case may be laid to rest and the trial can come to a speedy conclusion, leaving the door open for the countries to move forward and get back to the peace talks that were so sensationally disrupted last November.
Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.