Given three options by special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam and asked to pick the right one, 26/11 scout David Coleman Headley told a special court in Mumbai Thursday that he thought Ishrat Jahan was the woman who was killed in an unsuccessful Lashkar-e-Toiba operation in Gujarat.
Headley made the same claim in 2010 before the FBI and NIA that he had been told Ishrat was a Lashkar member.
Nineteen-year-old Ishrat from Mumbra near Mumbai was killed in an alleged fake encounter in 2004 by the Gujarat police on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Although police claimed that Ishrat and her associates were Lashkar operatives who planned to kill Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister, a CBI probe later rejected the claim and concluded that the encounter had been staged.
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As Headley, deposing from the United States via video conference, pointed to Ishrat, a political storm erupted with the BJP and Congress trading charges.
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Addressing a rally in Thiruvananthapuram, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh asked the Congress, Left and other Opposition parties if they were prepared to apologise to the nation for their “malicious campaign” against Modi over the killing of Ishrat.
“You must have heard what Headley has said in his deposition. Using Ishrat Jahan’s name, allegations were made against our party leaders. On that matter, Headley has clearly stated that she (Ishrat) had links with LeT,” he said.
“I want to ask Congress, Communists and other parties who had continuously launched a malicious campaign to mislead people on this issue, whether they are prepared to tender an apology to the people of the country,” he said.
Earlier, he told reporters that Headley’s testimony had “exposed Pakistan” but “we still want to maintain cordial relationship with the neighbouring country”.
In New Delhi, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju told reporters: “Whatever revelations have come, all are good for the Government of India, security agencies and prosecution.”
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said: “Raising doubts over Headley’s statement for serving personal petty politics would tantamount to anti-national. This is the first time a credible witness has directly indicted Pakistan for sponsoring terrorist activity in India. And if we raise doubts, it would directly help Pakistan.”
The Congress hit back, dismissing the BJP demand that Sonia Gandhi and the party apologise. Manish Tewari said the “fundamental question” was whether Ishrat and her associates were killed in a fake encounter.
“If BJP wants to stand with those who have been accused by the CBI in a Gujarat High Court-monitored process that they were accused or complicit in the fake encounter… they can go and stand with them in a court of law,” he said.
“There is nothing which stops BJP from doing that. We are not a banana republic, we are a country based on the rule of law and the rule of law does not permit fake encounters.”
Tewari said there were two separate and distinct issues — the first is whether Ishrat and her associates were LeT operatives or not. “In the light of David Headley’s statement, if the Government wants to investigate the matter further with regard to their credentials, there is absolutely nothing which is stopping the Government,” he said.
But the “fundamental question”, he said, remained whether Ishrat and her associates were killed in a “fake encounter”.
“If a person is a terrorist, he needs to be arrested, he needs to be tried, he needs to be brought to justice like Afzal Guru was brought to justice or Ajmal Kasab was brought to justice. But to try and justify a fake encounter, I am afraid, is something which the law does not permit,” he said.
In a statement, Vrinda Grover, the lawyer representing Ishrat’s mother Shamima Kausar, said the prosecutor “cannot give multiple choice questions, ask him leading questions and extract an answer. The statement of an approver is an inherently weak piece of evidence and requires corroboration in all material particulars”.