The David Headley Problem
Image Credit: U.S. State Department (Flickr)

The David Headley Problem

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There is understandable anger and grief in India over the United States recently sentencing David Coleman Headley to 35 years in prison. Formerly known as Daood Sayed Giulani, the Pakistani American Headley was one of the masterminds behind the November 26, 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai that left 166 persons dead, including six Americans, and injuring hundreds of others.

In the years since Headley’s arrest in the U.S. in 2009, New Delhi has been demanding that Washington extradite him to India to face trial, where he would almost certainly receive the death penalty.  At the same time, the UPA government has also understood that extradition faced many legal and bureaucratic obstacles, making it unlikely to occur.

Thus India's response to Headley's sentence was one of measured frustration, with officials continuing to demand Headley ultimately be brought to India while stopping short of criticizing the sentence Headley received.

"We would have wanted him to be produced in court here and face trial because we suffered the maximum damage from him. We will continue to strive to ensure that people like him are brought here and made to face trial because I believe that if the trial took place here, the punishment would have been even more serious," India’s Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid said.

Home Secretary R.K.Singh was much more forthright in his reaction to the sentence, but he too stopped short of criticizing it.

"Our view is that all those involved in 26/11 case should receive death penalty. That has been our consistent stand… We want death sentence for Headley and those who were involved in killing of 166 people in Mumbai. We will keep asking for his death sentence,"  Singh said. He added: “We will continue to press for extradition of Headley. The agreement (not to extradite him to India) is between the U.S. and Headley, not with India….Headley was involved not only in Mumbai conspiracy, but he also carried out reconnaissance in other places. Our request for his extradition stands."

These reactions reflect the reality that the UPA government is stuck trying to navigate between the complicated legal logistics of extradition and its domestic political needs. Indeed, critics of the government have been adamant that it has not done enough to bring to justice those responsible for the Mumbai attacks. This has forced government officials to lobby Washington hard and publicly for extradition, all the while knowing that its success in this endeavor was doubtful. For instance, last November Khurshid wrote his U.S. counterpart, Hillary Clinton, a letter expressing hope that India would receive a favorable decision in the Headley case.

In one of those rare instances of the two major political parties being in agreement on an issue, the BJP has also demanded that Headley be extradited to India. The Opposition noted that the fact that the Mumabi attack killed six Americans—for which Headley was sentenced for in the U.S.— could not erase the fact that many more Indian nationals had perished.

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