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'It was just temptation. Bad company corrupts good morals'

May 03, 2005 14:57 IST

Hemant Lakhani, the India-born, British clothing merchant, was convicted last week of attempting to sell shoulder-launched missiles to what he believed was a terrorist group, by a New Jersey court April 28.

He spoke to India Abroad, the newspaper published in the US, owned by rediff.com, in an exclusive interview from prison last year. Sentencing has been set for August 8 and Lakhani could get up to 67 years in prison. We reproduce the interview, with kind courtesy to India Abroad.

My mother always told me to learn to say no," he says, the sound of soft sobs punctuating his words. "She told my wife after our wedding to make me learn how to say no."

"Forty-four years later, in this prison cell, I realize I should have listened to her."

That is Hemant Lakhani, on the phone from Passaic County Jail in New Jersey in May 2004, where he has been held without bail since August 2003.

He pleaded not guilty before US district court Judge Katherine Hayden of Newark, New Jersey and insisted he will never plead guilty.

"I was offered a deal (plea bargain), but why should I say yes? Whatever is to happen will happen, Allah sabka hai (Allah is there for everyone) and if this man (the government's cooperative witness, Habibur Rehman) is ever extradited, (Pakistan President Pervez) Musharraf will throw him in prison for all he has done."

Lakhani was arrested with a missile after a transnational sting operation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the American version of India's CBI) in collaboration with British and Russian intelligence agents. Lakhani insisted he is innocent, and that Rehman and government agents trapped him.

He was arrested charges of trying to smuggle a shoulder-fired missile into the United States, supposedly so terrorists could use it to bring down a commercial airliner. He is also charged with trying to smuggle in anti-aircraft guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, radar systems and a 'dirty bomb.'

The charges consume his waking hours. Lakhani spends up to eight hours every day, going over the dozens of audio and videotapes that constitute part of the state's evidence against him, making copious notes and translating conversations he had with Habibur Rehman.

His faith in himself, his religion, and his destiny remain steadfast. Yet, in the lonely confines of his cell, the leaves of his past life rustle mournfully in the dark.

Compulsively, almost, he keeps flashing back to other times. To the time so long ago, when he went to London for the first time in September 1958 to study law. To other times, when he rubbed shoulders with royalty, including the ruling house of Abu Dhabi and the iconic Princess Diana, who once inaugurated the Asian Women's Sangam Association, a community organization of which his wife Kusum was a co-founder.

Such happy memories only recall him to the present, and cue fresh sobs as he protests his innocence, and claims he is a victim of entrapment.

"The cooperative witness they have is a liar, an evil man who is charged with several crimes himself and who I suspect has struck some plea bargain with the government," he said.

"I did do some military dealings, but that was for armored carriers in Angola," he says. "And even in this, I insisted that end-user certificates were needed but this man, Rehman, who is also known as Haji, said he would arrange that. I had no idea he was a crook, and I had no idea this (the missile) was meant for here, nor did I ever imagine I would be in jail."

He is determined, he says, to not allow one man to ruin his life.

During his first few weeks and months in jail, Lakhani says, he faced hostility from prison guards who considered him a terrorist, and anti-American.

Next: 'I don't want to harm this country. I am a peace-loving Hindu'

Illustration: Getty Images

Tanmaya Kumar Nanda in New York