Terror trial draws international media and different angles

June 9, 2011

By Odette Yousef

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(WBEZ/ Odette Yousef)
Shalini Parekh says the cultural aspects of the Rana trial could profoundly affect the outcome.

A jury on Wednesday begins to consider the fate of a Chicago businessman accused of helping plot the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

The trial of Tahawwur Rana has drawn an unusually diverse sampling of international media outlets to the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago. For some of the reporters, particularly in the Indian news media, the Rana story is the biggest story they’ve ever covered. One journalist says the trial has unexpectedly thrown her into the glare of big Indian media.

It’s been years since Shalini Parekh jostled for camera real estate. But the media pen at the Dirksen federal courthouse is... cramped, and sometimes you have to remind people to step out of your camera shot.

PAREKH: Thank  you, we’re doing like a quick 2 or 3 minute interview.

Man: Oh, OK, sure. Sorry.

PAREKH: Thank you. Appreciate it.

Parekh files short television pieces on the Rana trial for Times Now.

It’s a 24-hour, English-language news station in India.

Parekh is on-air four times a day.

Sometimes she just gives updates. But sometimes she mixes it up.

PAREKH: I don’t want to say WBEZ, because nobody knows WBEZ. Should I say NPR, National Public Radio? No...

TA: There’s a difference between the two. <fade under>

By interviewing other people... like my WBEZ colleague, Tony Arnold, who’s also covering the trial.

PAREKH: That would be perfect. We have with us Tony Arnold, a local reporter for Chicago Public Radio… a lot of interesting revelations made in court today, including those with Lockheed Martin...

Parekh hasn’t been immersed in news like this for twenty years.

That was in India... but now Parekh lives in Barrington, Illinois, an hour northwest of Chicago.

She calls herself primarily a homemaker and yoga instructor.

She’s tried to keep her journalism chops through some community reporting.

But now she’s in the news groove again -- big time.

With this trial, Parekh’s become a mainstay on the daily newscasts of one of the biggest news stations in the world’s second most populous country.

And she’s published about a dozen stories for The Times of India, that country’s largest English-language newspaper.

PAREKH: This trial was really incidental in propelling me into this centerstage that I never anticipated that I was going to be in.

And there was another thing that surprised Parekh.

She had never written for newspapers before, but after giving it a go, she discovered she has a unique viewpoint on the trial.

PAREKH: There has to be some sort of understanding of the cultural nuance.

Parekh says her print stories are longer and allow her to give more context.

She’s particularly interested in the cultural clashes inherent in the trial.

For example, she says western jurors don’t understand some aspects of South Asian culture, such as friendships:

PAREKH: In the east there is such a thing where salt is thicker than blood. In the west, blood is thicker than water. In some ways, salt is thicker than blood because if you eat together, you share salt,  you have a bond that cannot be explained away. And Rana, in my understanding, really took bond to the next level, of course to his detriment.

Parekh says that commitment to friendship may have led the defendant, Rana, straight into the crosshairs of US law enforcement.

Federal prosecutors used Rana’s one-time friend -- and admitted terrorist -- David Headley -- to implicate Rana in the Mumbai attacks and other plots.

On the flipside, Parekh says she has to explain American legal process and culture to Indian audiences, too.

PAREKH: We wonder what a jury is doing, or why is there a plea bargain, or why is there a jury selection process. These are all in stark contrast to what happens back home.

Parekh says the daily workload -- of television updates and print news writing -- has been tough.

But she’s also found it rewarding.

PAREKH: I’m watched by my relatives in India who call me and tell me that I’m on TV all the time, so that is exciting. But I think personally it has been more gratifying for me to unfold as a writer.

Parekh says she’s learned that maybe she’s been a closet writer after all...

Odette Yousef, WBEZ.