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Sacrificial lamb?

Shaikh Azizur Rahman, New Delhi
February 12, 2013

The execution of Afzal Guru, who was convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, has triggered outrage among activists who believe the man was denied a fair trial.

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest to condemn the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru in New Delhi February 9, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal )
Image: Reuters

On December 13, 2001, five armed men drove a car loaded with improvised explosive devices through the gates of the Indian Parliament House while the legislature was in session. When the men were challenged, they jumped out of the car and opened fire.

The ensuing gun battle killed the five militants, eight security personnel and a gardener.

Two days after the attack, Delhi police arrested Afzal Guru, along with two other fellow Kashmiri men and one's wife, and claimed that they had cracked the case.

In 2002, a fast-track court sentenced the three men to death and the woman to a five-year jail term for providing logistical support. Following an appeal, the Delhi High Court in 2003 acquitted one of the men and the woman, but upheld the death sentences for Guru and another man.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court in 2005 commuted the third man's death sentence to 10 years in jail, but enhanced Guru's to three life sentences and a double death sentence.

Secret hanging

Eight years after the country's highest judicial body upheld his death sentence and added another, Guru was secretly hanged in New Delhi's Tihar jail at 8 a.m. on Saturday, February 9.

Indian policemen escort Mohammad Afzal (L) to an anti-terrorism court in New Delhi in this December 18, 2002 file photograph. Files
Mohammad Afzal Guru was hanged secretely on February 9Image: Reuters

The government kept the execution such a closely-guarded secret that even his family in Kashmir had not been informed prior to his hanging.

News of Guru's execution spread across Indian media and triggered angry protests across Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, where he is regarded by many as an innocent pawn caught in a complex political game.

As angry demonstrations continue in Kashmir, three protesters have already been killed and dozens have been injured, including police officers.

No defense lawyer

Human rights activists across India have condemned the execution.

Social activist Professor Nirmalangshu Mukherji of the University of Delhi said Guru had received a court-appointed amicus curiae [friend of the court] but had been unable to secure a defense lawyer for his trial.

As almost none of the overwhelming evidence produced against Guru had been challenged at the trial due to the absence of a defense lawyer, Mukherji told DW, Guru's case had been "virtually insurmountable in the appeal courts."

"Looking at this evidence, therefore, the Supreme Court was obliged to conclude that Guru was guilty of aiding and abetting the attackers."

The amicus curiae never visited Guru in jail nor did he prepare any witnesses in his defense. Guru sought to engage a lawyer, he could not find anyone willing to take on his case. Speculators believe this may have been out of fears of being labeled anti-Indian.

In the end, Guru lost his final appeal to the Supreme Court, with the court ruling "the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded."

"Blatant miscarriage of justice"

Sujato Bhadra, a Kolkata-based member of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, said that the higher courts had not addressed Guru's claims that his trial had been faulty.

"The government carried out the execution without allowing him to exhaust a judicial recourse after the president rejected his mercy petition," Bhadra said.

"This is a blatant miscarriage of justice."

Prosecutors claimed Guru had helped one terrorist reach Delhi and buy a car which was used in the attack. However, Guru maintained he had been set up by an Indian Special Task Force [STF] officer.

Zafarul-Islam Khan, President of All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat (AIMMM), an umbrella body of Indian Muslim organizations, said that neither the prosecution nor the court considered Guru's statements.

Demonstrators hold a poster of Mohammad Afzal Guru as they take cover from coloured smoke released by fellow demonstrators during celebrations in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad February 9, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave
Mixed reactions: while people protested in Kashmir, others elsewhere in India celebratedImage: Reuters

"Guru repeatedly said that had his phone records been scrutinized, it would have been easily established how he worked under the command of the STF. No one paid heed to his words," Khan told DW.

"He never got a chance to tell his version of the whole story."

Execution seen as a political move

Many analysts believe the execution was in part an effort by the ruling Congress Party to improve its position ahead of general elections in 2014.

"The Congress, in its usual cynical manipulation of the votes, is trying to eat into the majority constituency," said political commentator Seema Mustafa.

Professor Mukherji said that every step of the judicial process, from the arrests, the filing of charges, the trial, the judgments in the three courts, the appeals, and in the end, the execution, had all been "vitiated by politics."

"The Supreme Court gave the death penalty to Afzal Guru to satisfy the 'collective conscience of society,' although it found the most incriminating evidence against Afzal, namely, his confession before the police, to be a fabrication," Mukherji pointed out.

"The rejection of the review petition by the president of India and the subsequent hanging three days ago were again based entirely on political considerations."

Indian Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has meanwhile dismissed the suggestion that Guru's case had been politically motivated.

"Many are saying that we were selective in the … execution of Guru. That's not the case. It was done following all rules," Shinde said at a press conference in New Delhi. "The issue was very sensitive. So we had to maintain secrecy. But there was nothing political in it."