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By Syed Nazakat

Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde faces a difficult question: should Afzal Guru be hanged or not? His decision has political as well as security implications. One the one hand, he does not want to reverse the recommendation made by his predecessor, P. Chidambaram, for hanging. On the other, he is aware that the hanging could trigger unrest in Kashmir.
Shinde’s decision is crucial, as Presidents usually go by the home ministry’s recommendation. No wonder that Shinde recently stated that he was in no hurry. “When the country’s President sends something to me for the second time, it means I have to go deep into the case and study it in detail, and then send the recommendation.”

While President Pratibha Patil commuted a record number of 30 death sentences to life imprisonment, she deferred the decision on 11 cases, including Afzal’s. President Pranab Mukherjee returned Afzal’s clemency petition on November 16, 2012, and asked Shinde to have a re-look.

Following Ajmal Kasab’s hanging, there has been growing clamour for Afzal’s hanging. Besides the BJP, some senior Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh, too, want him hanged soon.

Shinde himself had told journalists a day after Kasab was hanged that he would decide on Afzal’s plea, which has been pending since 2006, in two days. Two months have passed.

Shinde is shrewd. He knows the BJP cannot stretch the case beyond a point. After all, it was the Congress-led government that decided on Kasab. His aides say he does not run the risk of appearing weak even if he recommends against Afzal’s death penalty in view of fresh evidence or national interest.

But, Afzal and BJP are not his only headaches. There is demand for pardoning Rajiv Gandhi’s killers in Tamil Nadu. In Punjab, groups have been demanding clemency for Balwant Singh Rajoana, assassin of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh.

Add to that pressure from human rights groups. “As of today, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty,” Amnesty International general secretary Salil Shetty told THE WEEK in a recent interview. “India should also abolish the death penalty.”

In a letter to the President, Amnesty alleged serious flaws in Afzal’s trial. He was first convicted under POTA, under which law-enforcement agencies can treat a suspect’s confession as admission of guilt. But throughout the trial, Afzal claimed he was a surrendered militant who was roped in by the now-disbanded State Task Force of Jammu & Kashmir to spy on other militants. He also claimed that it was an STF officer who had sent him to Delhi to find accommodation for a person called Muhammad, who was part of the terrorist squad behind the Parliament attack. Such issues remain unclear.

Now, for the record, there were 12 accused in the Parliament attack case. All the five gunmen were killed. Three conspirators, including Muhammad, have absconded. Of the remaining four, who were arrested, the Delhi High Court acquitted Afshan Guru and S.A.R. Geelani. Shaukat Hussain was released earlier this year after serving nine years in prison. And Afzal Guru is waiting.

(January 31, 2013, THE WEEK)

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