CHICAGO – The wife of a Chicago businessman accused in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks said Wednesday that the friendship between her husband and an admitted terrorist who's the government's star witness wasn't as close as attorneys have portrayed.
Jury deliberations began Wednesday in the closely watched trial of Tahawwur Rana, who is accused of providing a cover story for his former school mate David Coleman Headley as he conducted surveillance for the attacks that left more than 160 people dead. Over five days of testimony — more than half the trial — Headley explained how he took orders from both Pakistani intelligence and a militant terrorist group and all details were communicated with Rana.
The men, both 50, met at an elite Pakistani military boarding school as teenagers. Prosecutors have said the men remained close friends and that Rana was in on the Mumbai plot and planning another attack that never happened on a Danish newspaper. Defense attorneys have also said the men were close, but that Headley took advantage of Rana.
Rana's wife, Samraz Rana, told The Associated Press that her husband and Headley were merely school classmates and they were out of touch for decades. She said after their three years in school together Rana had "no link with" Headley until the late 1990s, when Headley needed help after a heroin conviction.
"People are saying we know him thirty years," she said. "That's wrong."
Samraz and her husband, who have three children, married in 1990. She said she had never heard of Headley until about half a dozen years later and she didn't meet him until the next decade. She said that at that time Headley had started to turn his life around, including quitting smoking and getting married to his first wife.
"He was a family man," she said, describing him as a person who was "very educated, very smart, handsome."
She said that her husband is innocent and echoed a theme of his defense attorneys — that Rana was duped by Headley. They've pointed to his work as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after two heroin convictions and said Headley implicated Rana to save his life. In his plea deal, Headley avoids the death penalty and extradition.
Still, experts say the fact that federal government made Headley their first witness signifies a degree of confidence. His testimony was the most highly anticipated, especially because the proceedings come just weeks after bin Laden's May 2 killing in Pakistan by U.S. forces. The fact that the al-Qaida leader had been living in an army garrison town outside the Pakistani capital for years raised suspicions that the Pakistani government knew, or even helped hide, bin Laden. Pakistani officials have denied the claims.
Prosecutors made a Sept. 7, 2009, recorded phone call between Rana and Headley the centerpiece of closing arguments for the prosecution. In the call, the men discussed the Mumbai attacks and Headley talked about future targets, including a Danish newspaper that in 2005 printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, angering many Muslims. That plot was never carried out.
"Rana and Headley were playing on the same team," Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria Peters said Tuesday during closing arguments. "These two old friends don't just talk about past accomplishments, they talk about future goals."
Samraz Rana, who has attended the trial each day, said the conversation doesn't prove her husband knew anything of the Mumbai attacks beforehand, especially since it happened after the attacks.
"From that it is very clear that my husband didn't know anything about Mumbai attack," she said. "That's whatever he (Headley) has made up to save his life. Headley is twisting those things."
In the conversation, during a car ride, Headley talks in a nearly sing-songy voice about different targets in the case. Rana's wife said that whenever the men spoke, they would often revert to childlike language or mannerism like their school days.
Meanwhile jurors on Wednesday had one question on their first day of deliberations, seeking clarification about other defendants charged in absentia and their affiliations to different groups. Jurors asked about two Pakistani men charged in the case and if they were members of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba or Pakistani intelligence. U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber told jurors on Wednesday to rely on the evidence for answers. Jury deliberations will resume on Thursday.
Rana has pleaded not guilty to three counts: conspiring to provide material support to terrorism in India, Denmark and to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization. Rana could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
Rana's wife, who wears traditional Pakistani clothes and a Muslim woman's head covering, said she is spending her time praying.
"We are just waiting and we are fully confident that jury will say not guilty," she said. "I know my husband."
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen