NEWS
26/11/2019 9:16 AM IST

26/11 Mumbai Attacks: Judge Who Sentenced Kasab Speaks About Trial For The First Time

10 years after 26/11, ML Tahaliyani looks back at Ajmal Kasab’s trial and explains why he wanted to wrap up the proceedings quickly.

Government of India CCTV footage.
Kasab's trial was unusual in that it involved a crime that had taken place in full view, one that people had seen played out live on national television for hours.

Mumbai, MAHARASHTRA: When 10 Pakistani men attacked Mumbai on 26 November 2008, ML Tahaliyani was in his house in the southern part of the city. Like thousands of others, he followed the events on television, not knowing that he would soon be deciding the fate of one of the attackers.

After 60 hours of carnage across multiple locations which left 166 people dead and more than 300 injured, the police captured Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving gunman behind one of the biggest terrorist attacks India had ever seen.

Once the state filed its 11,280-page charge sheet against Kasab and others, the case was assigned to Judge Tahaliyani, who had already conducted a high-profile trial earlier—the Gulshan Kumar murder case.

ALSO READ: 25 Photos That Show What Mumbai Went Through During The Terror Attacks

“It was just another day when I heard I had been assigned the 26/11 trial,” Tahaliyani told HuffPost India this week, the first time he has spoken to any media outlet about the trial. “I didn’t think anything in particular when I found out—someone had to do it.”

He was assigned no other cases during that period, and day after day, he came to the court or his chamber to conduct hearings or look after administrative work in a case that was never free from public and media scrutiny.

Screenshot from YouTube
Justice Tahaliyani at an event in 2017.

If the magnitude of the task ever weighed on Tahaliyani, it doesn't show. It was business as usual, he claims.

"The only extra care I took during the course of the trial was to ensure it was finished as quickly as possible," he says. "That was my only anxiety since the daily cost was very high."

The trial began in April 2009 and was wrapped up by May 2010. Tahaliyani took only three days off during this period—to go meet his mother.

In a country where trials can go on for years and the judicial system is often pilloried for dragging on, expediency was of the essence, especially given the expenditure on Kasab's security—news reports have estimated at least Rs 25 crore was spent on this.

"Not just in this case but the factor of time should always be at the back of any judge's mind," says Tahaliyani. "I wasn't hasty, I did it comfortably, but the time factor should be always be kept in mind. We did it in good time."

The trial began in April 2009 and was wrapped up by May 2010. Tahaliyani took only three days off during this period—to go meet his mother.

Tahaliyani had worked as a public prosecutor in Gadchiroli, Sironcha and Warora in Maharashtra, before being appointed as a magistrate in Mumbai in 1987. He moved up the ranks, becoming a chief metropolitan magistrate, then a city civil court judge and later principal judge of the city civil court in 2010. He was elevated to the Bombay high court in 2011 and after his retirement was appointed as the state's Lokayukta in August 2015.

Sensitive case

The Kasab trial was unusual in that it involved a crime that had taken place in full view, one that people had seen played out live on national television for hours. Given the magnitude of the violence, there was naturally massive interest in the case—hordes of mediapersons descended on the court every day and people outside the courtroom were quick to pass judgement.

STF via Getty Images
A combination of front pages of major Indian newspapers the day after Kasab was sentenced to death.

"The case itself was not challenging, it was an open-and-shut case, but it was a media-sensitive case with high emotional factors," says YP Singh, a former IPS officer who is now a lawyer. "But that is extraneous and cannot influence a trial."

Tahaliyani agrees.

"People are likely to make comments or express their feelings about such an incident, and they have a right to do so, but as judges, we have to do our professional job," he says. "The public might feel that the one they think they have seen committing a crime on television should be punished but there is a process in the law that has to be followed."

Tahaliyani did keep track of the news, and brings out his pile of paper clippings and news reports from the time—a faded, dusty stack.

He won't comment on any of the accused, or what happened outside court, and is circumspect throughout while choosing his words.

"Like any other individual I could also imagine the feelings of the people at the scene of the offence and the relatives of the deceased," he says. "But a case is always decided on merits. That is the beauty of the judicial process. There was no extraneous influence on my mind of any nature."

Volume of evidence

During the course of the trial, the court examined more than 600 witnesses, including formal witnesses via affidavit, and examined heaps of evidence. The scale of the attack had been staggering, and so, naturally, would be the trial.

In cases like these, where the number of deaths are in hundreds and bullets in thousands, organising things on a day-to-day basis is crucial, says the retired judge

"One of the important steps from the beginning was to maintain proper records and to keep everything neat and tidy," he says. "It was such a voluminous case—it was the first time I was dealing with this volume of evidence in my life."

In cases like these, where the number of deaths are in hundreds and bullets in thousands, organising things on a day-to-day basis is crucial, says the retired judge, who credits his staff for their help.

The 26/11 case also challenged investigators because of its sophisticated plotting, how it was planned and coordinated from outside India and depended on new technologies for its implementation. This meant dealing with various kinds of evidence.

Tahaliyani says he learnt many new things while working on the case.

"It gave me the opportunity to deal with so many subjects in a single judgement: eye witnesses, circumstantial evidence, a large amount of different types of ammunition, post-mortem and DNA reports, articles on the ships, technology such as satellite phones and VOIP dialling," says Tahaliyani.

The verdict, and after

Once the proceedings were over, Tahaliyani took a month to write the judgement, which ran into 1,500 pages.

On 6 May 2010, he pronounced his verdict—Kasab was convicted on counts including murder and waging war and would be hanged, the first time Tahaliyani ever awarded the death penalty.

AFP via Getty Images
People light candles at a memorial for the 2008 Mumbai attack victims at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, on 6 May 2010, the day Kasab's sentence was pronounced.

The judge, however, acquitted Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin Shaikh, the two Indian men charged with providing local support, finding holes in the prosecution's case against them.

Tahaliyani's judgement was subsequently upheld by the Bombay high court in February 2011.

When the Supreme Court did the same in August 2012, it called Tahaliyani "a true flag bearer of the rule of law" and praised his meticulousness: "The manner in which he conducted the trial proceedings and maintained the record is exemplary."

On the apex court's recommendation, the judgement is now part of the curricula for judges' training in judicial academies across the country, says Tahaliyani.

"It is satisfying when any judgement is upheld, and it was the same for this case," says Tahaliyani. "There is no question of doing anything differently. The SC itself said that justice was done to everyone."

Does he ever go back to re-read the judgement? He smiles.

"Once in a while I do return to read that judgement, like I read any other previous judgements," he says, "to see how I used to write earlier".