An American was sentenced to 35 years in prison for helping plan a 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, escaping a life sentence because prosecutors pressed for leniency as credit for his widespread co-operation with U.S. investigators after his arrest.
The judge sounded reluctant about imposing the lesser sentence on David Coleman Headley in a Chicago courtroom Thursday minutes after one of the victims tearfully pleaded for harsh punishment for the attack that has been called India's 9-11.
Prosecutors said they wanted Headley to get no more than 35 years because he provided intelligence about terror networks, including the Pakistani-based group that mounted the attack. Rewarding Headley with the hope of at least a few years of freedom, the said, would encourage future suspects in terrorist cases to spill their secrets.
A sombre Judge Harry Leinenweber imposed the lesser sentence but said the Mumbai assault was so unfathomable and terrifying that, "perhaps the lucky ones were the ones who didn't survive."
"I don't have any faith in Mr. Headley when he says he's a changed person and believes in the American way of life," he said.
Headley's meticulous scouting missions facilitated the assault by 10 gunmen from a Pakistani-based militant group.
The attackers arrived by boat on Nov. 26, 2008, carrying grenades and automatic weapons, and fanned out to hit multiple targets, including a crowded train station, a Jewish centre and the landmark Taj Mahal Hotel. TV cameras captured much of the three-day rampage live.
Headley, 52, shifted uncomfortably in a grey tracksuit and kept his eyes fixed on the courtroom floor as he listened to an American children's author describe the violent chaos during her 2008 vacation to India.
Bullets flew past her check and panicked diners dived under tables as gunmen burst into a hotel restaurant, then walked around executing people one by one, recalled Linda Ragsdale, at times almost shouting as she stood just near Headley during the sentencing hearing.
"I know the sweet sickening smell of gunfire and blood," said Ragsdale, 53, who was shot through the back, the bullet passing along her spine and then out her thigh. "I know what a bullet can do to every part of the human body ... These are things I never needed to know, never needed to experience."
She did not comment after the judge imposed the sentence, but others victimized by the attack said they were disturbed and upset Headley did not get the maximum life sentence he faced. With credit for good behaviour, he could walk out of prison before he turns 80.
"He lost his right to live life as a free man. He doesn't deserve to be let out. He gave up that right when he played a role in the attack," said Kia Scherr, whose husband Alan Scherr and 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, were at the same table as Ragsdale and died.
Ragsdale, the only victim to address the court during Thursday's hearing, also read a text message from Kia Scherr to the judge, in which Scherr implored the court not to give Headley less than life in prison and asserting that anything less "would be an appalling dishonour."
The attack heightened the strain in a historically antagonistic relationship between India and Pakistan, which have fought three major wars. Indian officials accuse Pakistani intelligence of helping to plan the assault, an allegation Pakistan denies.