Indian hanging raises doubts over timing

Parliament attack plotter’s execution triggers debate over whether convicts are being selectively sent to the gallows.

A Kashmiri Muslim shouts slogans during a gathering to offer funeral prayers in absentia for Mohammad Afzal Guru on a road on the outskirts of Srinagar
Protests have erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir over Afzal Guru's hanging [Reuters]

The execution of Afzal Guru by hanging on February 8, who was charged with aiding a deadly attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, has divided public opinion in the country.

While many on social media platforms like Twitter have shown their support for the execution, protests broke out in Kashmir, and many leading legal and human rights activists have contested it.

Prosecutors say Afzal helped to plot the audacious attack on the parliament by five men on a chilly morning that killed nine.

Afzal’s death comes in the wake of the November 2012 execution of Ajmal Kasab – the sole surviving member of a group of attackers who targeted Mumbai in 2008, killing 164 people in co-ordinated attacks.

Divided opinion

Federal ministers and senior ruling Congress party officials have come out in the open, saying the execution upheld the rule of law.

“We have sent the message to the world that that we cannot tolerate terrorism at any cost,” said Rashid Alvi, Congress spokesman.

Soli Sorabjee, a former advocate general and one of India’s best-known legal luminaries, told CNN-IBN television that Afzal Guru’s execution was a logical conclusion after his mercy plea was rejected by the Indian president. “India cannot be held to ransom by protests,” he said.

Throngs of ordinary citizens across the nation also celebrated the tough action. “It proves India as a nation cannot be harmed without consequences,” said Amit Mandal, a resident in the eastern city of Kolkata.

But legal experts, human rights activists and politicians from Kashmir, where Afzal Guru came from, have expressed shock at the way in which the execution went forward.

“Even after the Indian president rejects a mercy petition, the law allows a person to seek judicial review in court. Afzal Guru seems to have not had recourse to that legal avenue,” said Colin Gonsalves, a defence lawyer in Afzal Guru’s case.

Others, including Omar Abdullah – the chief minister of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir state, have raised questions over the timing of Afzal Guru’s execution.

Now Afzal Guru is hanged, without even informing his family, thus violating their legal rights, just a week after Narendra Modi makes his first public speech in Delhi.”

– Sandipan Deb, analyst

There has been speculation that the execution was carried out in haste by the Congress-party ruled government to take on the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run up to crucial general elections in 2014.

The BJP has consistently accused the Congress party of being soft on terrorism and showing little resolve before sending the alleged perpetrator of the parliament attack to the gallows.

The party has also been under pressure ever since Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and a hard-selling nationalist, began positioning himself as BJP’s next prime ministerial candidate.

So did the increasingly nervous Congress party decide to show some teeth after being constantly under fire for being indecisive?

Analyst and former editor of Open magazine Sandipan Deb says, “Ajmal Kasab, the 26/11 terrorist was hanged in November last year, without any prior announcement, three weeks before the Gujarat state elections and a week before the winter session of parliament.”

“Now Afzal Guru is hanged, without even informing his family, thus violating their legal rights, just a week after Narendra Modi makes his first public speech in Delhi, which got huge media coverage and apparently a very positive response from young Indians, and 12 days before the Budget session of parliament begins. Doesn’t there seem to be a pattern here?”

Secrecy slammed

Afzal Guru had been on the death row for years. A court first sentenced him to death in 2002 and the Delhi High Court confirmed it the next year. Supreme Court, the country’s apex court, upheld the sentence in 2005.

His sudden execution has therefore evoked both shock and surprise.

Reports in the Indian media indicate that Afzal Guru was informed of his death only a few hours earlier. His family and wife were not informed or allowed a final meeting before he was taken to the gallows.

“Most shameful and high-handed is the utter secrecy of the execution,” said lawyer Gonsalves.

Following his execution, Afzal Guru was buried at Tihar Jail, Delhi’s high-security prison. Sending his body to his home state in Kashmir could have led to a flare up of protests. 

Media reports suggest that some areas in Kashmir are tense and Afzal Guru’s wife has written a letter to the jail authorities, requesting his body to be sent home.    

The question of a fair trial

India, the world’s most populous democracy, prides itself for its rule of law. 

But lawyer Gonsalves says Afzal Guru’s trial and eventual conviction rested on two gross infirmities.

The first was trial by media, which rendered the doing of justice to Afzal impossible, and the second was that he got little legal assistance. “The lack of proper legal aid in a capital case was a serious infirmity with Afzal Guru’s case,” said Gonsalves.

He was charged under the IPC (Indian Penal Code) with waging, or attempting to wage war, abetting and criminal conspiracy to murder against the Government of India; collecting arms with the intention against the Indian government; conspiring to facilitating commission of terror acts and harbouring and concealing terrorists, especially of banned organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammed and committing a punishable offence under Prevention of Terrorism Act; and possession of money given to him by members of the terror organisation.

Afzal Guru’s lawyers had decried the fact that the police called in the media to broadcast a nationwide “confession” on primetime television.

According to Gonsalves, such a “confession”, though inadmissible in court, had a huge impact in the country and a fair trial thereafter became impossible.

‘Selective hanging?’

One of the biggest tragedies of the execution was the further alienation of Kashmiris.”

-Omar Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister

Critics of the execution say the Indian state has been selective in sending Afzal Guru to the gallows, fast-tracking him over other inmates on the death row.

Three people, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, have not been executed yet despite being sentenced to death for the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Balwant Singh Rajoana, the convicted killer of Punjab state chief minister Beant Singh in 1995, has also so far been spared the gallows despite a death sentence.

Chief minister Omar Abdullah has questioned why the killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh have not yet met the same fate as Afzal Guru. “Rajiv Gandhi or Beant Singh were no less symbols of India than the parliament,” he has told television channels.

Critics of the Congress-ruled federal government therefore suspect politics to have played a role in the latest execution.

Rajiv’s family – including daughter Priyanka – has reportedly forgiven his killers. Even his widow Sonia – the chief of the country’s ruling coalition UPA – has not overtly pressed for the speedy execution of the three.

“Sonia Gandhi may have pleaded against the death penalty for Rajiv’s killers, but unless her party takes a principled position against the death penalty for all, this will seem like the rest of her liberal outreach programme, designed to ensure her own good name”, said Nadini Sundar, a sociologist with Delhi University, in the Hindustan Times

There is speculation that Sonia’s Congress party – the dominant party in the coalition – is wary of political repercussions.

The Congress has now lost two consecutive elections in Punjab, and sections within the state’s dominant Sikh community see Rajoana as a hero.

Sikh religious leaders and the regional Akali Dal party want clemency for Rajoana, and the Sikhs have hardly forgotten the anti-Sikh riots that took place following the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi, Rajiv’s mother.

Executing the three over Rajiv’s killing may also prove to be inconvenient for the Congress. Regional allies like the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) are less than enthusiastic, lest it upset the Tamils – its main vote bank. Rajiv was killed by the Sri Lankan Tamil outfit LTTE. The group has been decimated, but continues to appeal to some sections of Tamils in India.

“The point is, the UPA gains nothing politically by hanging these people, but by hanging Afzal Guru, it hopes to refurbish its image a bit in the eyes of the middle class”, explained Deb.

As Omar Abdullah said following Afzal Guru’s death, “one of the biggest tragedies of the execution was the further alienation of Kashmiris” from India.

Source: Al Jazeera