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INDIA: Hanging for Pakistani Sets Back Anti-Death Penalty Campaign

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, May 10 2010 (IPS) - The death sentence awarded to Pakistani national Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, 22, for his role in the 2008 terror attack on the western port city of Mumbai that killed 166 people is being seen as a setback to a campaign to have the extreme punishment abolished in India.

“It is a setback in the sense that there were few voices heard for remission,” Colin Gonsalves, leading human rights lawyer and vocal campaigner against the death penalty, told IPS. “However, I am optimistic that public opinion in the country will swing back towards abolition.”

India was among 54 countries that voted against the December 2007 United Nations General Assembly moratorium on executions, which was passed with 104 votes in favour and 29 abstentions. The South Asian country’s Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the death penalty may be resorted to only in the “rarest of rare cases”.

While death sentences have continued to be handed down, hangings, the only accepted mode of execution in this country, are rarely carried out for a variety of reasons, including successful appeals in higher courts. India’s last hanging took place in 2004.

Kasab’s case, activists and legal experts agree, went far beyond the “rarest of rare” category. His conviction was easy because he was captured on camera as he and an accomplice, Abu Dera Ismail Khan, went about spraying bullets indiscriminately on commuters at Mumbai’s main railway terminus on Nov. 9, 2008.

Kasab, it turned out, was the only survivor of a 10-man squad of gunmen who had sailed into Mumbai from the Pakistani port of Karachi and then fanned out to attack major landmarks. They attacked two luxury hotels and a Jewish centre and fought off commando teams for two days before being shot dead.

In video-recorded confessions, Kasab admitted that he and the other members of the squad had undergone weapons training at camps in Pakistan run by the Lashkar-e-Toiba or ‘Soldiers of God’ jihadist group, which has been linked to several terrorist attacks on India in the past.

The weight of evidence against Kasab as well as public opinion whipped up by round-the-clock media coverage of the Mumbai attacks was such that it was a foregone conclusion that he would be awarded the death sentence at the end of trial conducted in an ordinary court that was open to the media.

Kasab’s sentence must be ratified by a high court after which he has the right to appeal against his sentence in India’s supreme court and, if that fails, ask for clemency from the president – a process which may well take years, going by past experience.

Indeed, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, a prominent New Delhi-based rights group, has complained about a lack of timeframe in which executions are carried out.

Since Kasab’s sentencing on May 6, India’s television channels have featured several debates and panel discussions on his specific case as well as the larger issue of death penalty in India.

Well-known rights activist Madhu Kishwar said at one of the TV debates that Kasab’s was an open-and-shut case and that keeping him alive posed a major risk to the country in that it could encourage attempts to secure his release through plane hijacks or kidnappings.

Kishwar’s fear was not baseless. In December 1999 a group of five Pakistani nationals, said to belong to the Harkat ul Mujahideen group, hijacked an Indian Airlines Airbus loaded with passengers from Kathmandu headed to Kandahar in Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule.

After seven days of negotiations, the passengers were exchanged for three Pakistanis lodged in Indian jails on terrorism charges. One of them, British- born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, was later arrested and sentenced to death in Pakistan for the 2002 murder of ‘Wall Street Journal’ correspondent Daniel Pearl. Sheikh’s sentence is yet to be carried out.

The attempt to storm Indian parliament, the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane and the Mumbai attacks have kept relations between India and Pakistan low over the past decade and at times hovering on the brink of open hostilities. Such events have also meant that there is little public sympathy in India for delaying or commuting Kasab’s death sentence.

Nevertheless, rights activists and those in favour of abolition on both sides of the border have continued to argue against hanging Kasab.

“Two wrongs do not make a right,” said Pakistani rights activist Tehmina Abdullah appearing at a panel discussion on an Indian TV channel. “Civilised countries do not sentence convicted people to death.”

Maja Daruwala, who heads the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told IPS that she opposed the death sentence in a case involving a young man like Kasab because “it snuffs out all possibilities”.

Echoing similar sentiments, human rights lawyer Gonsalves said Kasab could have been given a life sentence instead and “a chance to reform and perhaps become a voice for moderation, even speaking to young people from jail against taking the path of ‘jehad’”.

In the end, what may save Kasab from the gallows for any length of time is the fact that he is the only jihadist to have been captured alive in India and officially acknowledged by Pakistan as a citizen of that country.

“Kasab is the only living proof we have to put pressure on Pakistan and get it to shut down the terror camps that India has repeatedly said are being allowed to be operated from Pakistani territory,” said Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor of international studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a human rights activist.

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