Tuesday, 16 January 2007

India: The politics of hanging

The death penalty is claimed as an act of justice, whereas in truth it is an act of politics.

It is a tool for those in power, or aspiring to power, to demonstrate politically 'desirable' qualities: strength, resolve, decisiveness, empathy with the victims of crimes that haven't been effectively prevented, legitimacy in the face of challenges to the state's authority.

These factors have been clearly in evidence in India in recent months, following a court's decision in September 2006 to set an execution date for Mohammad Afzal Guru.

Afzal was scheduled to hang in Tihar Jail on 20 October for conspiracy to attack the Parliament of India, waging war against India and murder. The execution was stayed after his wife filed a mercy petition.

He was charged after an armed attack on India's Parliament complex on 13 December 2001, in which several security guards and the five attacking gunmen were killed.

The attack was linked to militant Kashmiri separatist groups.

Political issue
India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to make political gains out of the case, circulating a pamphlet outlining why Afzal should be executed and repeatedly calling on the government to reject clemency and hang him as soon as possible.
One report this week suggested the BJP would try to link the case to issues of terrorism, security and nationalism in forthcoming state elections.

When the execution date was first set, leaders of some Kashmiri separatist organisations encouraged Afzal not to appeal to the Indian President for mercy, preferring him to die a martyr, according to the Kashmir Observer.

Other Kashmiri leaders had argued that going ahead with the execution would damage the peace process in Kashmir.

Final appeals
The Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal from Afzal that argued he had been denied adequate legal representation during his trial.

His last hope lies with a petition for clemency which is now before India's President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Judge 'opposed to death penalty'
The Supreme Court Judge who chaired the panel rejecting Afzal's appeal said on Saturday that courts had to impose the death penalty in the 'rarest of the rare' cases.

Outgoing Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal said when he retired at the weekend that he was personally opposed to the death penalty but the courts were bound to impose it.

"Once a court arrives at a conclusion that a case falls in the category of 'rarest of rare' it has no option but to award death penalty," he said at a news conference on Saturday.

"My personal view that death penalty should be abolished doesn't matter.

"It's up to the legislature to decide whether to retain death penalty," Sabharwal said.

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