Rana jury selection faces bias against Muslims

Rana jury selection faces bias against Muslims

Judge James Leinenweber spent the entire day questioning possible jurors, keeping the main thrust of his inquiry on establishing whether they had demonstrably negative views about Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community. While by and large the jurors said they had no particular antipathy towards either, some, such as juror number 14, said he did not respect Islam.

In his reply to a questionnaire that was distributed among the potential 100 jurors May 16, this particular juror reportedly wrote "Terrorists are mainly Muslims, or am I wrong?"

He was promptly excused by the judge in the interest of a fair trial for Rana.

Jurors are identified only by their numbers in order to guard their privacy as well ensure personal safety. Juror number 15, apparently of South East Asian origin, was also excused because she said she could not be fair given her strong views about Islam.

Yet another possible juror, number 21, was excused because he had a "moral" problem passing judgment on others. The one who followed him said he had a persistent tooth and shoulder pain that would not let him concentrate on the issue at hand. He said he had no health insurance because he was out of a job. He too was excused.

Juror number 5, a young male, was excused because he said unambiguously that he would "absolutely" give the government an edge over the defendant while making his judgment.

Juror number 28, a woman, was excused because she cited her "fragile" state of mind given that her sister was allegedly killed by a police deputy. Juror 36 was excused because she said she did not trust the government about anything and maintained that the problem of terrorism was overstated.

Another specific question that came up several times on whether jurors believed that US citizens and non-citizens should be afforded the same legal rights. Some of them were either unsure of or against it despite the fact that the US constitution guarantees that.

The judge also asked each one of them whether they had any difficulty accepting the basic principle of the US jurisprudence of presumption of innocence unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He also pointed out the burden of proof was always solely on the government and not the accused. All jurors seem to agree with that fundamental legal principle.

Rana is a Chicago businessman charged with providing a cover to his Pakistani-American high school friend David Coleman Headley for scouting targets for the Mumbai terrorist attack that left 166 people dead.

Fifty-year-old Rana, who sat in the court room surrounded by his attorneys, smiled frequently at some of the replies, and at other times made notes. He was dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt without a tie and brown shoes whose laces were removed. It was pointed out by a regular court reporter that laces were removed to avoid any potential suicide attempt.

The jury selection is likely to continue until Thursday in order to finalise 12 actual jurors, six alternates or standbys and 20 others in order to allow both the defense and prosecution to reject specific numbers. While the defense is entitled to striking out 10, the prosecution can reject six.

The trial will begin May 23, and there are clear expectations that the key Mumbai terror plotter, David Coleman Headley, will testify. It is widely expected that Headley, now a government witness, will implicate Rana for his role in the plot, a charge he has consistently denied.

Since the trial is being watched closely by Washington, New Delhi and Islamabad, Rana's attorneys Patrick Blegen and Charles Swift are acutely aware of the larger geopolitics surrounding it. However, both have said it should be ensured that geopolitics does not influence the direction or the outcome of the trial.

Whether that expectation is fulfilled depends entirely on the kind of jury that is finally picked. Asked if a potential juror's Indian or Pakistani connection would have a bearing on their selection, Swift said while that may not be an "automatic disqualifier", it is was possible such a juror may not make the cut.

What has heightened the interest in the Rana trial is that in the aftermath of the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, there are serious questions about the extent of involvement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in sheltering terrorist leaders.

While the US federal prosecutors are already privy to all the information Headley has provided so far, there are expectations he would repeat some of these in court to strengthen the government's case against Rana.

Rana has been charged with having provided material support that facilitated Headley to scout targets in Mumbai and has been in detention since October 2009. His attorneys said no one was keener than him to get on with the trial.

It is not clear how aware Rana is about the interest with which his trial is being followed. It is likely his attorneys have briefed him as part of preparing him for the next four weeks that it is expected to last.

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