Mumbai gunman deadpan amid media frenzy

On the day of the verdict Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab gave nothing away, after 14 months in which the court witnessed tears, giggles and emotional outbursts from the main suspect for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.

His face was deadpan throughout the proceedings as he was found guilty of murder, waging war on India and a host of other serious charges – potentially carrying the death penalty.

Wearing a white kurta, he kept his head bowed and expressionless.  This is the man who proclaimed “hang me” last July, after he gave a detailed account of the attacks he had perpetrated. He later withdrew that confession.

But over the last few weeks Qasab’s erratic and strangely ebullient demeanour disappeared.  He had become unresponsive and solemn – as if he knew what might be coming his way.

But while Qasab remained sombre, the media worked itself up into a frenzy. There was an atmosphere of anxiety and anticipation before the trial began. Long before the court opened, the area had been thronged with police, lawyers and journalists.  The public was kept at a distance. Security was extremely tight.  In the courtroom, the two Indians accused alongside Qasab were brought in first.   They were later acquitted, as the judge ruled the evidence against them was insufficient.

The defendants and their lawyers were all smiles as that happened.  But the atmosphere was quite different when the judge, who has remained calm and authoritative throughout the trial, completed the reading of his verdict.  Qasab was asked to stand up as he was addressed in Hindi. He hung his head and listened, his back to the media.  At that point the journalists in the room became restless, craning their necks, trying to get a glimpse of his reaction. The judge had to warn the court more than once to keep calm.

There were gasps when it became clear from the judge’s statement that he was going to be found guilty.  Journalists who had followed every twist of the case wanted to see if this volatile defendant would provide one of his notorious smiles, or any other reaction. But there was nothing.

Historic case

The judge told Qasab the court would hear aguments from the prosecution and defence about sentencing on Tuesday. He listened, nodded and left.  Then there was a near stampede and as the journalists left the courtroom expecting the lawyers to come out too. Members of the public approached the media and asked what had happened.   One stall-holder near the court, Jitendra Kataria, said that he had watched these proceedings from outside for more than a year.  “We are glad that he was found guilty. It was important that police caught him alive. We hope the maximum punishment is given to him,” he said.  “This is the first time we have caught somebody in action. It hasn’t even happened in other countries.”

The trial is also notable for being one of the speediest trials in India’s notoriously slow-moving justice system. For security reasons, a special courtroom was constructed at the Arthur Road jail where Qasab was being held.  One of Qasab’s victims was Devika Rotawan, an 11-year-old girl who was shot in the leg at the railway station where he unleashed his terror.

Her father told me he would only consider this case a success if Qasab gets the death penalty. “Devika and I have spoken on several occasions about what we wish. We want him hanged and we want to see it. Only then will we believe in the government of this country,” he said.

While announcing the verdict, the judge paid tribute to witnesses, in particular Sebastian D’Souza who walked around Mumbai station to get a photograph of the attacker.

It was testimony such as his that gave the case its strength, he said. Qasab has the right to appeal. There is no sense yet if that will happen.  For the moment, the media and the public are digesting the importance of the conclusion of this historic case.  This sentiment embodies what much of Mumbai, indeed India, is feeling at the moment.

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