Chicago, Jan 24: Pakistani-American LeT terrorist David Headley was on Wednesday sentenced to 35 years in jail by a US Court for helping plot the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks but escaped death penalty under a deal with the US government over which the judge had serious reservations.
"The sentence I impose, I'm hopeful it will keep Mr Headley under lock and key for the rest of his natural life," US District Judge Harry Leinenweber said. The Judge added that it would have been much easier to impose the death penalty, saying, "That's what you deserve."
52-year-old Headley had entered into a plea bargain with the US investigators under which he escaped death sentence. But many were left surprised when the US prosecutors did not seek life sentence for Headley. Headley was ordered to serve 35 years, followed by five years of supervised release by Leinenweber. There is no federal parole and defendants must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.
"Mr Headley is a terrorist," the Judge said while imposing the sentence on 12 counts in a packed court. Leinenweber also said, "He commits crime, cooperates and then gets rewarded for the cooperation. No matter what I do, it is not going to deter terrorists. Unfortunately, terrorists do not care for it. I do not have any faith in Mr Headley when he says that he is a changed person now. I do believe that it is my duty to protect the public from Mr Headley and ensure that he does not get into any further terrorist activities. Recommending 35 years is not a right sentence".
Asked if he wanted to make a statement, Headley said, "No your honour"... In pleading guilty and later testifying for the government at the trial of co-defendant and school time friend Tahawwur Rana, Headley admitted that he attended training camps in Pakistan operated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, on five separate occasions between 2002 and 2005.
In late 2005, Headley received instructions from three members of Lashkar to travel to India to conduct surveillance, which he did five times leading up to the Mumbai attacks in 2008 that killed approximately 166 people, including six Americans and wounded hundreds more.
A week back, Leinenweber had sentenced Rana for 14 years of imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release for providing material support to LeT and planning a terrorist attack against a Danish newspaper in Copenhagen. Both Headley and Rana were arrested in 2009. Headley was small-time narcotics dealer turned US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) informer who went rogue.
In their closing arguments, US attorneys Daniel J Collins and Sarah E Streicker had sought between 30 and 35 years of imprisonment for Headley. His attorneys Robert David Seeder and John Thomas had sought a lighter sentence arguing he had given a huge amount of information to the US government against terrorist organisations like LeT and several of its leaders.
Headley has confessed that he had undertaken numerous scouting missions for his handlers in Pakistan. He had videographed a number of targets in India including the iconic Taj hotel in Mumbai which was attacked by 10 LeT terrorists.
According to security agencies, the detailed videos made by Headley was the foundation on which the Mumbai attacks were planned and carried out. Headley, born to a Pakistani father and American mother, had even changed his name from Daood Gilani in 2006 to easily move in and out of India without raising suspicion.
The US attorneys argued that while there is no question that Headley's criminal conduct was deplorable, his decision to cooperate provided uniquely significant value to the US government's efforts to combat terrorism.
"We are seeking less than life time sentencing, because of the significant intelligence value information provided by Headley. Crime is deplorable, shocking and horrific. We have to recognise the significant value of the information. We believe that 30-35 years of imprisonment would be justified and balance and thus be downgraded from life sentence," Collins said. Former US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who appeared in court, urged leniency saying that Headley's decision to become an informant "saved lives".
In addition to providing insight into the personnel, structure, methods, abilities and plans of LeT, Headley took active steps to further the investigation into other terrorists including his handler Sajid Mir. Mir was a senior Lashkar leader who was one of the main architects of the Mumbai attacks and acted as one of the controllers providing directions to the ten attackers. Sajid was Headley's handler.
Abu Qahafa, a senior Lashkar member who provided combat and other training to the ten attackers, acted as one of the controllers. Headley's cooperation assisted the government in filing criminal charges against at least seven other individuals and his testimony helped to secure the conviction of one co-defendant, federal prosecutors said. Federal prosecutors also pointed Headley cooperated with Indian investigating agencies for seven days and that he has agreed to provide co-operation in the future as well through various means including videoconferencing. But his extradition has been ruled out.
"As the Court knows, Headley's testimony helped secure a conviction against (Tahawwur) Rana. Further, Headley has agreed to provide truthful testimony in any proceeding in the United States if called upon by the United States Attorney's Office, as well as any foreign judicial proceeding held in the United States by way of deposition, videoconferencing or letters rogatory," Collins said.