DUBAI // A key suspect in the serial bomb blasts that killed 257 people in Mumbai in 1993 was under arrest in India last night after being sent back there from the UAE. Taher Mohammed Merchant, also known as Taher Taklya or Taher Mohammed Dada, was taken into police custody as soon as he arrived at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai.
Indian authorities asked for Mr Merchant to be sent back in 2004 under an agreement with the UAE signed in 2000. His arrival in India brings to an end a six-year custody wrangle. MK Lokesh, the Indian ambassador to the UAE, said Mr Merchant's return was a welcome development and a positive step in relations between India and the UAE. He confirmed that Mr Merchant had been sent back to India from Abu Dhabi airport on Tuesday.
The arrest revives one of the longest-running cases in Indian judicial history. Mr Merchant, 54, is accused of taking an active part in the attack at every stage, arranging for the training of the participants, smuggling weapons and collecting funds. He is also a close associate of Dawood Ibrahim, India's most wanted gangster and the man believed to have masterminded the attacks. "Merchant is very important to the conspiracy," said the Mumbai special public prosecutor Ujwal Nikam, who has been in charge of the bombing case since its inception.
"He played a vital role and was one of the key conspirators in the serial blasts. He was one of those who actually supported, aided and assisted the conspirators and was also involved in the landing of arms on Indian soil." Mr Merchant's arrest will strengthen the police case against four defendants already on trial in a Mumbai court, Mr Nikam said. As well as the 257 deaths, more than 700 were injured when 13 powerful bombs exploded in Mumbai in a period of just over two hours on the afternoon of March 12, 1993. Targets included the city's stock exchange, banks, hotels and a shopping complex.
More than 30 suspects remain at large and at least 100 people have been convicted over the bombings, of whom a dozen were sentenced to death and 20 given life sentences. More than 50 others are serving between four and 14 years in jail. The initial trials ended in 2007, after dragging on for 12 years. Like the four defendants now on trial, Mr Merchant will be tried under a tough terrorism law, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
"We have been granted custody of Mr Merchant until June 14," said Aijaz Khan, a Central Bureau of Investigation lawyer who is prosecuting all five. "His case will be heard along with the others." Victims of the 1993 attacks reacted angrily to news of Mr Merchant's return to India, a development considered long overdue. Bitterness clouded the response of Deepika Mirchandani, a 28-year-old bank manager and a Mumbai bombings survivor.
"We have already suffered so much," she said. "How does it matter now if the case goes on for another 14 years? The justice system moves so slowly that it doesn't really matter after so long." Deep gashes on her arms and a scar on her face were visible reminders of the blast that shattered the walls of her first-floor apartment, where she lived with her grandmother. A bomb hidden in a bus blew up as the bus passed outside her apartment.
The Indian judicial system is notorious for long, drawn-out cases. This week eight former executives at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal were convicted of causing death by negligence more than 25 years after the toxic gas leak there, and that case continues because they have said they will appeal. And 26 years after the assassination of the former Indian prime minister Indira Ghandi, trials in connection with anti-Sikh uprisings that followed the murder are still going on.