ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, Pakistan Wednesday charged seven men with masterminding and overseeing the assaults.
Behind closed doors at a counter-terrorism court, charges were read out against the two alleged masterminds, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah, and five others, according to lawyers for the defense. The trial could begin Dec. 5.
Some 170 people died in the four-day terrorist rampage in Mumbai that began Nov. 26, 2009 and put nuclear-armed India and Pakistan on the verge of war.
The accused have been reported to be members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a militant Pakistani Islamist group that has targeted India. Lakhvi and Shah were arrested soon after the Mumbai attack along with some of the others, and India has been pressing ever since for them to be charged, accusing Pakistan of prevaricating.
While western governments will likely welcome the charges, Indian officials are said to be furious that the head of LeT, Hafiz Saeed, is not being prosecuted but is free to move about in Pakistan. The Pakistani government says India has not provided evidence that Saeed was directly involved in the Mumbai attack.
In a separate case, a prosecutor in Chicago recently implicated LeT in a terrorist conspiracy involving a U.S. and a Canadian citizen who were plotting to attack the Danish newspaper that published the controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. It was the first firm sign that LeT was involved in plots against the West.
Only one of the 10 gunmen, who struck Mumbai last year, Ajmal Kasab, was captured alive, and he is being tried in India. Kasab said in a detailed confession that he and the other terrorists had trained in Pakistan, had Pakistani handlers and set off for Mumbai in a boat from Pakistan. It is possible that Shah was the handler, who was heard on intercepted phone calls instructing the terrorists during the assault.
In the proceedings in Pakistan, which took place inside a jail in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, the prosecution argued for the evidence from that Kasab confession to be considered by the judge.
But Malik Mohammad Rafique Khan, a lawyer for one of defendants told McClatchy that the Rawalpindi court ruled that the Kasab trial must be kept separate. But the evidence from Kasab is likely to be a matter of continuing debate between the defense and prosecution during the trial.
"We feel relaxed," Khan said. "That (Kasab confession) is just a scrap of paper."
The seven men had multiple charges laid against them, including criminal conspiracy and commission of murder. They all pleaded not guilty.
Arch-rivals Pakistan and India have co-operated in an unprecedented way in gathering evidence against the men, though each side accuses the other of not doing enough. If convicted, it would be the first time that Islamabad has carried through an investigation and prosecution of this kind for crimes committed in India by a Pakistani extremist group.
LeT was once close to Pakistan's military and some believe it remains closely associated with the army, which had previously used jihadists to put pressure on its giant neighbor, India.
In Washington, President Barack Obama, standing alongside visiting Indian premier Manmohan Singh, said Tuesday that Pakistan is "beginning to recognize that extremism, even if initially directed to the outside, can ultimately also have an adverse impact on their security internally."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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