A Day in Court with David Headley

14 February 2016
Indian police personnel stand guard outside the sessions court in Mumbai where David Headley was deposing.
Indian police personnel stand guard outside the sessions court in Mumbai where David Headley was deposing.

At 9.30 am on 12 February 2016, I found myself observing David Headley—the Pakistani-American who scouted targets for the 26/11 terror attacks in 2008 that had been planned by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). I could see Headley on a screen in a specially convened Mumbai courtroom. Since he was deposing via video camera from an undisclosed location in the United States, I could not know what time it was for him. Although he was one of the prime accused in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, Headley was granted a pardon by a Mumbai special court for turning approver in December 2015. The evidence he provided as a co-conspirator was considered to be of "immense importance and assistance to the prosecution" by the court.

Mumbai’s special court, which, since Monday, has been opening at 7 am—earlier than usual—to conduct the hearing, had taken a 25-minute break during the deposition. The Americans on the other side of the camera, including Headley and three officials, were at ease and relaxed. The audio on both sides had been switched off and the courtroom had all but emptied, but for a few who stayed and watched the screen as if it were playing a silent film.

Headley was dressed in the same grey V-neck sweater he had worn the previous day. He sat behind an oval table that held a smattering of coffee cups and a bunch of papers. Headley was narrating some sort of story to the others, his long slender fingers eagerly describing motions in the air. He was by a good measure, the most talkative man in the room. At one point, he held his face in his left palm and appeared to chuckle. The hint of a paunch was discernible through the sweater, and his hairline was visibly receding. In this anodyne setting, he barely resembled a terror plotter. But what does a terrorist look like?

The contrast between Headley and Syed Zabiuddun Ansari or Abu Jundal, who is accused of being involved in the 2008 attacks, could not have been more apparent. Jundal’s features were obscured by his heavy beard. He sat on a chair and looked ahead, stone-faced and unblinking in a cold, white-washed room in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail. Jundal, was for most part alone, occasionally flanked by a policeman.. He had sought to be produced in court for the trial, but the state’s argued that his presence may prove a security threat. The court accepted this line of reasoning. The men—so different in their appearances, legal standing and, body language–could not have been more set apart, but for the single plot that united them: the attacks in 2008. Headley, sentenced to 35 years by a US court, was here after turning approver to give evidence in the state of Maharashtra’s case against Jundal’s alleged involvement. While giving evidence till now, Abu Jundal has barely been mentioned.

Between the two large television screens was the full force of the Indian judicial system; additional sessions Judge GA Sanap and public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam. Behind them was a cavalcade of journalists, and assorted police officers. The rear walls of the court had trunks marked “roznama” stacked on tops of cupboards against them. Every seat in the room was taken.

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

Keywords: David Headley Mumbai attacks Lashkar-e-Taiba court reporting approver Ujjwal Nikam