U.S. trial of alleged Mumbai plotter may harm Pakistan ties

CHICAGO Mon May 16, 2011 2:42pm EDT

Firefighters douse a blaze at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai November 29, 2008. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Firefighters douse a blaze at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai November 29, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Desmond Boylan

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Prospective jurors filled out questionnaires on Monday at the outset of the trial of a Pakistani-born man accused of aiding the 2008 Mumbai attack that could further strain U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Tahawwur Rana, a 50-year-old Chicago businessman who is a Canadian citizen, is accused of helping his childhood friend, American David Headley, to scout targets for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) for the Mumbai attack that killed 166 people, including six Americans.

The U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town Abbottabad heightened tensions between the nominal allies, and the trial may expose actions by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) opposed to U.S. interests. The case is being closely watched in India.

Islamabad denied providing support to bin Laden or knowing he was in the country and has objected to the covert U.S. raid and protested U.S. drone attacks in its northern provinces.

Though Pakistan's government banned LeT and froze its assets in 2002, Pakistan's long-time nemesis India has expressed concerns about government support of the militants, some with ties to al Qaeda. The extent to which the United States shares this view may come up at trial.

Six other Pakistani men have been charged, all fugitives, including a leader of a second militant group and a figure named as "Major Iqbal," described as a member of the ISI.

Headley has pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and extradition to India or Denmark, and will provide key testimony about his surveillance trips.

Headley has told investigators that top LeT members were handled by ISI officials, and one of his handlers was Iqbal.

U.S.-Pakistani relations have long been marred by mistrust. There has been an ongoing debate about billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan and its reliability as a U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan.

Rana's defense has argued that Headley tricked Rana into believing his espionage work was on behalf of ISI, and not a plot by militants to launch attacks targeting Westerners in Mumbai.

Several documents in the case against Rana have been filed under seal including the prosecution's outline of its case and some related defense motions. Several hearings have been closed to the public, as well.

"A lot of things that were under seal will come to light in this trial," Rana's attorney Patrick Blegen said.

Judge Harry Leinenweber of the U.S. District Court warned a courtroom full of some 100 potential jurors not to read or talk about the case, while a pack of reporters took notes.

Leinenweber told jurors -- who will be identified by number only -- that the trial should last four weeks with Fridays off, including this week's jury selection.

"We need jurors who can put their emotions aside" about the horrific Mumbai attack, Blegen said.

Rana, the owner of an immigration service, is also accused of providing cover for Headley to set up a revenge attack against a Danish newspaper that published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed which inflamed Muslims.

The bespectacled Rana shed his orange prison jumpsuit and appeared in court in a dark suit, white shirt with no tie, his mostly white beard and hair neatly trimmed.

At another closed hearing on Monday, trial participants were expected to discuss ways to substitute for evidence that involves government secrets.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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