U.S. Mumbai plotter avoids death but gets 35 years for cooperation

Chicago AFP-JIJI

An American man who admitted to scouting targets ahead of the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks and then cooperated with U.S. authorities to avoid execution was sentenced Thursday to 35 years in prison.

David Coleman Headley, 52, pleaded guilty in 2010 to 12 charges related to the carnage in Mumbai and a second plot to attack a Danish newspaper that sparked outrage over its publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

He convinced U.S. federal prosecutors to let him live after he was caught on tape plotting the Danish attack by telling them all he had learned in seven years working with Pakistani militants.

Former U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who brokered the plea deal, said the information Headley provided “saved lives” as he urged the judge to be lenient rather than imposing the maximum sentence of life in prison.

In handing down the 35-year prison sentence, the judge told Headley, however, he would much rather impose the death penalty, saying, “That’s what you deserve.”

Heavily armed militants rampaged through Mumbai in November 2008, killing 166 people and wounding hundreds more over nearly three days of carnage in a prolonged assault on India’s financial capital.

In a plot that reads like a spy thriller, Headley spent two years casing Mumbai, even taking boat tours around the city’s harbor to find landing sites for the attackers and befriending Bollywood stars as part of his cover.

He was so eager to attack Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper and kill its cartoonist that he began working seriously on that plot two months before the Mumbai attack.

He also had Bollywood and one of India’s most sacred Hindu temples in his sights as he began plotting a second India attack during a March 2009 surveillance trip.

The judge said that while the damage that Headley had caused was “unfathomable,” he decided to fulfill the government’s request because the recommended 30 to 35 years “is not a light sentence,” given Headley’s age.

“I’m hopeful it will keep Mr. Headley under lock and key for the rest of his natural life,” the judge said.

India objected after U.S. prosecutors agreed not to extradite Headley in exchange for his cooperation after his October 2009 arrest in Chicago’s O’Hare airport as he was set to board a flight to Pakistan.