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‘Dumb criminal’ gets 47 years

New York, Sept. 13: An Indian-born British businessman, whose arrest was touted as an “incredible triumph for the war on terror”, has been sentenced to 47 years in jail by an American court for supporting terrorism aimed against the US.

Seventy-year-old Hemant Lakhani, who is now almost certain to die in jail, claims he was entrapped in a two-year sting operation by overzealous US agents intent on finding a “scapegoat” following the September 11 attacks.

In October 2001, a US government informant, posing as a Somali terrorist, offered Lakhani “millions of dollars” if the London clothes merchant could sell him shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down American planes.

The agent then audiotaped and videographed Lakhani as he negotiated the sale of a Russian “Igla” SA-18 missile.

Lakhani then bought a missile from a Russian and imported it into the US, disguised as medical equipment. The weapon was a dud ' the seller was a Russian agent helping the Americans.

The Gujarat-born businessman was arrested in August 2003 and convicted in April this year of supporting terrorism, money-laundering and illegal imports.

Lakhani, a failed businessman who had declared bankruptcy, said he was no arms dealer. He had only been a charlatan and a “greedy fool”, tempted to play along with a buyer who had offered him a fortune.

Defence lawyer Henry Klingeman described his client as a “a joke, a clown”, a man who “couldn’t finish a deal if his life depended on it”.

Prosecutor Stuart Rabner countered that Lakhani had freely offered to arrange the sale of 50 more missiles. “There was no coercion. No threats, no guns to the defendant’s head,” Rabner said. “You don’t have to be sophisticated to be a criminal. You can be a dumb criminal.”

Lakhani broke down after US district judge Katharine S. Hayden announced the sentence yesterday in Newark.

He said the case was fabricated, that he was sorry and protested he did not want to die in this country. “I don’t think I can survive any longer,” he told the court. “I’m completely exhausted. What can I do'”

Wife Kusum, too, addressed the court, saying “we are normal people; we had a good life in London” and adding that the family was financially ruined.

Rejecting pleas for leniency, the judge said that it was not hard to have compassion for the defendant because of his failing health; but the evidence was overwhelming that he intended to provide weapons to a terrorist group bent on shooting down airliners and killing thousands of innocent civilians.

The informant, Muhammad Habib Rehman, a Pakistani national who had been providing information to the FBI and other government agencies since the mid-1990s, testified that Lakhani had reached out to him a month after the September 11 attacks, claiming to be in the arms trade.

Lakhani’s poor health caused numerous delays in the trial. This year, he underwent an angioplasty and an emergency double hernia operation.

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