Death penalty for Mumbai bombers

MUMBAI: An Indian court on Thursday sentenced to death three people, including a married couple, for planting high-explosive bombs that killed 52 in the city of Mumbai in 2003.

Judge M.R. Puranik, sitting at a special anti-terrorism court, ordered that Haneef Sayyed, his wife Fahmeeda Sayyed and Ashrat Ansari "should be hanged by the neck until dead" for murder, criminal conspiracy and terrorism.

All three were convicted last week, nearly six years after two bombs exploded within minutes of each other at the Gateway of India monument and in the bustling Zaveri Bazaar jewellery quarter.

Fahmeeda, wearing black with a veil over her face, Haneef and Ansari stood impassive in the dock as the sentences were handed down.

Their lawyers have indicated that they would appeal against the death penalty, which is given rarely in India and is often delayed indefinitely or commuted by the president.

Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, who said the three were members of the banned Pakistan-based Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), said they deserved their punishment and dismissed a last-minute appeal for leniency as misplaced.

LeT is also alleged to have masterminded last year's Mumbai attacks, which saw 10 heavily armed gunmen kill 166 people across the city. One of the gunmen, a Pakistani national, is currently standing trial.

"People who carry out horrific acts like bomb blasts should understand that they cannot escape the clutches of law," Nikam told reporters on the steps of the court.

Suresh Walishetty, who led the police investigation into the 2003 attacks, told AFP: "These three people were the planters and the conspirators.

"From the beginning they attended meetings of the LeT in Dubai. We are very happy about the sentence."

The court had heard the blasts were retaliation for Hindu atrocities against Muslims during riots in Gujarat state in 2002 and the trio, all Indian nationals, claimed to be members of the so-called "Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force".

At least 2,000 Muslims were hacked, beaten, shot or burnt to death in the 2002 attacks in Gujarat, which erupted after 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire which was at first blamed on a Muslim mob.

A subsequent inquiry concluded the fire was accidental.

Haneef Sayyed's lawyer had argued that his client, 51, should be sent to prison for life without parole.

Counsel for Fahmeeda Sayyed, 49, said she should not be hanged as she was a poor, uneducated woman pressured into committing the crime by her husband out of Muslim duty and was taken along to "camouflage" the group's intentions.

Ansari's lawyer Sushan Kunjuramaran made no submissions but the convicted bomber, 38, said he did not agree with the judge's verdict.

Prosecutor Nikam rejected the defence arguments, saying the offences fell into the "rarest of rare" category of crimes deemed appropriate for a judge to pass the death sentence.

The meticulously planned and executed bombings, carried out by planting high-explosive devices in the boots of taxis, were of "extreme brutality" and led to the "massacre of innocent people", he told the court.

"It would be a mockery of justice if the death penalty is not imposed," he added.

The trial was the biggest anti-terrorism case in the city since the 1993 "Black Friday" bombings in which 257 people were killed and at least 800 others were injured.