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A CBI court has sentenced Abdul Latif, Dalip Kumar and Yusuf Nepali to life imprisonment in the Kandahar hijack case. Special judge Inderjit Singh Walia found all three guilty of conspiracy.

Seven other accused, all Pakistan nationals, were also indicted in the case but are at large. They have been identified as Ibrahim Athar, Sunny Ahmed Qazi, Sahid Sayeed Akhtar, Zahoor Ibrahim Mistry, Shakir and Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar’s brother Yusuf Azhar and his brother-in-law Abdul Rauf.

The Indian Airlines’ New Delhibound flight from Kathmandu was hijacked on December 24, 1999, with 179 passengers and 11 crew members on board. The plane was taken towards Pakistan but later landed at Amritsar airport. It then took off again and landed at Lahore and Dubai for refuelling before finally landing at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

The week-long drama ended after the BJP-led NDA government released three dreaded terrorists — Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, Al Umar Mujahideen chief Mushtaq Zargar and Ahmed Omar Sayeed Sheikh, who has later convicted in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh flew with the terrorists to Kandahar to secure the release of the passengers on board. Masood Azhar and Sheikh are Pakistanis, Zargar is an Indian from Jammu and Kashmir.

Sayeed Akhtar was accused of killing 25-year-old Rupen Katyal, a passenger on board the hijacked flight, with a knife. The hijackers also injured another passenger, Satnam Singh, during the week-long ordeal.

Hearing in the matter, including cross-examination of over 120 witnesses, since March 2001, was completed last month.

CBI arrested Abdul Latif and Dalip Kumar from Mumbai in December, 1999, and Yusuf Nepali was arrested later from Kathmandu. They have been in Patiala jail since their arrest. The conspirators were accused of helping the Pakistani hijackers in procuring fake passports and other papers and helping them take weapons inside the flight. They were not directly involved with the hijack.

According to the prosecution case, the conspiracy of the hijacking was hatched in 1999 in Sabzi Mandi area of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. The plans for travel, hotel accommodation and travelling documents were also finalised. Weapons, including hand grenades and revolvers, and fake passports were procured later.

The CBI has said in its chargesheet that the entire operation was masterminded by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s agents and aided by Pakistan’s ISI.

CBI officials said it was the recording of the confessional statements of the accused that led to the convictions.

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