NEW DELHI // A recent verdict in a terrorism trial in Chicago could hinder the Indian government's attempts to prosecute suspects in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, legal analysts said.
Last Thursday, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Chicago-based businessman, was found by a jury to be guilty of collaborating with the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba and of helping to plan an aborted attack on the offices of a Danish newspaper.
For these two convictions, he received a sentence of 30 years' imprisonment. His lawyers have indicated that he will appeal against the convictions, believing that the jury "got it wrong".
Rana was, however, acquitted of the charges that he also provided "material support in preparation for and in carrying out the Mumbai attacks".
Six other people, including one member of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency known only as Major Iqbal, were named in absentia in the indictment.
Further, one of the key witnesses in the trial, the Pakistani-American David Headley, who admitted to helping plan the Mumbai attacks, is the beneficiary of a deal struck with US prosecutors. In return for his evidence against Rana and the Lashkar-i-Taiba, Headley will now escape extradition to Pakistan, India or Denmark.
American prosecutors have defended this plea agreement, saying that Headley provided important information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In a statement, the Indian government expressed "disappointment" over Rana's acquittal in the Mumbai attacks conspiracy. "However, it must be remembered that Rana was tried in a US court in accordance with US law," the statement said. "Criminal trials in the US are jury trials and there are special rules governing such jury trials."
Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor in the Mumbai attacks trial in India, told reporters after the verdict was announced: "When Rana has been held guilty of assisting the Lashkar-i-Taiba and guilty of supporting terrorist acts in Denmark, how have they separated him from the Mumbai attacks? It appears that there are some apparent contradictions in this verdict."
The Indian government, in its official statement, said that India's National Investigation Agency, which has requested some of the documents and evidence produced during the Chicago trial, would soon come to a decision "on filing a charge sheet against Headley, Rana and others in an Indian court". No decision has been made as yet on an extradition request.
The verdict in Chicago is, of course, not binding on Indian courts, as Tanveer Ahmed Mir, a New Delhi-based specialist in criminal litigation, pointed out. "But India has a bad record at extraditions," Mr Mir said. "And my own opinion is, if a US court has acquitted Rana, the Indian government will have virtually no case. I don't think the investigating agencies here would have more or different evidence than that presented by the prosecutors in the US court."
Mr Mir did point, however, to the case of Abu Salem, a noted underworld figure who was successfully extradited from Portugal to India in November 2005.
Salem and his girlfriend were arrested in Lisbon in 2002 for travelling on fake passports. At the time, Salem was already wanted in India for his connection with a series of 13 bomb explosions that were triggered in a single day in Mumbai in 1993, killing 250 people.
Salem was deported to India at the end of a three-year process, after requests for extradition were initially turned down by Portuguese courts.
"The case of Abu Salem is, in some sense, similar to the Rana case," Mr Mir said. "But the Indian authorities will need to go in with much stronger evidence. Right now, the case against Rana is based largely on confessional statements of David Headley, and India will need more than that if an extradition request is to be successful."
But B Raman, a former intelligence official and a counter-terrorism analyst, said that India would be hard-pressed in any extradition appeal it chooses to file.
"Under the American concept of double jeopardy, a suspect, once acquitted, cannot be tried again on the same charge," Mr Raman said. "So it'll be up to Indian authorities to figure out whether they can try Rana under a different section of the penal code."
Mr Raman said he was "not very optimistic" about India's attempts to prosecute Rana.
"If the court has said there's no case against Rana, then, in American eyes, the case against the others suspected in the Mumbai attacks conspiracy will also grow weaker, so we can't be sure that America will ask for these other suspects to be extradited from Pakistan," he said. "And India will have to depend on America to put pressure on Pakistan to deport these subjects to be tried anywhere. The process has just become more complicated."