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Scout for 2008 Mumbai attackers gets 35 years in jail

David Headley received a reduced sentence for co-operating with prosecutors

David Headley, the Pakistani-American who played a key role scouting terrain for the terrorists behind the 2008 Mumbai terror rampage, was sent to prison for 35 years, a reduced sentence that recognised his co-operation with prosecutors.

Addressing a packed Chicago courtroom, the US District Judge Harry Leinenweber, noted he had recently received a letter from Headley, 52, who had previously entered guilty pleas to 12 different charges. In the letter, Headley expressed remorse for his role in the Mumbai attacks but the judge said he had trouble believing the sentiments. “I don’t have any faith in Mr Headley when he says he’s a changed person and believes in the American way of life,” he said.

Born to a Pakistani father and an American mother, Headley changed his name from Daood Gilani in 2006 and then travelled to Mumbai where he spent months conducting reconnaissance for the al-Qa’ida linked Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. He chose locations for the attacks which happened in November 2008, including the renowned Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. He spent some of that time at sea in the city’s harbour identifying landing points for the terror team, which arrived by boat.

Prosecutors had asked for 35 years because of the assistance received from Headley from the moment of his arrest while he was boarding a plane overseas at Chicago airport. In addition to giving background on the Mumbai attacks which left 166 people dead, he also described a never-carried-out plot to attack on a Danish newspaper that had published a cartoon image of Mohamed. Headley testified against Tahawwur Rana, a Chicago businessman convicted last week of aiding Lashkar in the aborted Denmark plot. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

For his co-operation, Headley ensured he would not be extradited to India and would not face the death penalty in the US. That he may one day walk free again will not sit well with everyone, however.

“I and victims’ families think he should spend the life in prison,” said James Kreindler, a lawyer for the families of American victims. “Thirty-five years will upset some people... but if that sentence means you got good information out of him... and he gets out with a few years to live, some can tolerate it.”

Chicago prosecutors acknowledged that setting the right prison time was hard. “Determining the appropriate sentence for David Headley requires consideration of uniquely aggravating and uniquely mitigating factors,” they said before the judge’s ruling.

“What he did was unfathomable,” Mr Kreindler added. “Imagine what is going through a person’s mind who is video-taping these places knowing what will happen there later.”

After coming ashore, the 10 Lashkar militants fanned across Mumbai before unleashing murderous havoc at a series of busy targets, including a packed railway station. The Indian government hanged the only gunman who survived the operation in a secret execution at the end of November last year.

The sentencing and the hanging of the last terrorist were both painful reminders of an event that horrified all of India and served to exacerbate bilateral strains with Pakistan.

“No matter what I do it is not going to deter terrorists,” Judge Leinenweber said, adding: “I do believe that it is my duty to protect the public from Headley and ensure that he does not get into any further terrorist activities.