An Indian anti-terror court Monday handed death sentences to five members of a home-grown extremist group for a deadly attack in Hyderabad nearly four years ago.
Last week, the special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court convicted the five Indian Mujahideen (IM) operatives of carrying out twin bombings that killed 18 people and wounded more than 130 at a bustling market in the southern city in February 2013.
The court said it was awarding the maximum punishment to the defendants – IM co-founder Yasin Bhatkal, along with members Asadullah Akhtar, Tahaseen Akhtar, Ajaz Shaikh and Zia-ur-Rehman, a Pakistani citizen – because the case fell under the “rarest of the rare” category.
They are the first IM members to be convicted since the group’s formation nearly a decade ago. According to police, it was allegedly founded by Karnataka state natives Yasin Bhatkal and his brother Riyaz – the prime suspect in the Hyderabad attack who is absconding.
The outfit has claimed responsibility for at least 10 separate attacks across India since 2007. The Indian government banned the outfit as a terrorist organization in 2010.
Public Prosecutor K. Surender called the verdict a victory for the National Investigation Agency (NIA) – India’s top counter-terror agency – and the 453 witnesses examined during the trial that began in August 2015.
“As per the investigation ... evidence that is placed on the record clearly reflects that the five IM members planned and executed the bomb blasts. We sought capital punishment and accordingly the court gave the death penalty to them,” Surender told reporters, according to Deccan Chronicle.
Creating terror in people’s minds
The defendants, whose lawyer did not appear in court on Monday, said they would appeal the verdict in a higher court, Surender said.
According to the NIA charge-sheet, Riyaz and Yasin Bhatkal planned the Hyderabad attack and arranged material required to build explosives. The plot aimed to “create terror in the minds of people and further the activities of IM” in a “conspiracy to wage a war against India.”
The brothers instructed Asadullah Akhtar and Zia-ur-Rehman to receive the explosives in Mangalore, a city in Karnataka state about 900 km (559 miles) from Hyderabad, the NIA said.
Akhtar and Rehman then reached Hyderabad to join Tahaseen Akhtar and Ajaz Shaikh, who were already hiding there, the agency said. Together they manufactured the explosives in a hideout, after which they purchased two bicycles to mount the home-made bombs, the charge-sheet said.
The cycles were placed at the most crowded areas of Hyderabad’s Dilsukhnagar shopping district to inflict maximum damage, the NIA said, noting that the accused were identified by footage from closed-circuit television cameras.
Yasin Bhatkal and Asadullah Akhtar were arrested at the Indo-Nepalese border in August 2013, leading investigators to the other suspects. Under interrogation all of the accused confessed to their roles in the attack, the NIA said.
Home-grown terror still a threat: Analyst
The convictions of these key IM members is a significant development in India’s fight against home-grown terror, but the country’s security agencies must not be complacent, according to one analyst.
“It [the sentencing] will surely send a very strong message to those planning to carry out acts of terror in India. But it does not mean an end to the problem of home-grown terrorism,” Samir Patil, a security analyst with Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House, told BenarNews.
“Over the years, many of these IM commanders have established links with other terror groups like AQIS (al-Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent) and the IS (Islamic State), and they are continuing to recruit from India. They pose a serious threat to the security of the nation,” Patil said.