ABU SALEM AND THE ABSURDITY OF INDIA’S DEATH PENALTY REGIME

(Updated in March 2013)

For the benefit of non-Indians: Abu Salem (Abu Saleem Ansari) is a notorious underworld figure implicated in the killings of scores of people and other crimes in India. He fled abroad in the 1990s and was arrested in Portugal in 2002. For more details, see this link:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4427536.stm

India sought his extradition but Portugal as a member of the European Union, all of whose members have abolished the death penalty, sought assurances that he would not face capital punishment if returned. The former Hindu nationalist BJP government and its hard-line home (or interior) minister L.K. Advani gave that undertaking. Abu Salem was finally extradited to India in 2005 (after the Congress party’s Manmohan Singh took charge as prime minister).

Abu Salem was in the news in 2010 as the Supreme Court of India ruled that he could be tried on charges other than those for which his extradition had been sought.

And in 2011, a Portuguese court decided it had had enough. It has revoked the extradition order. http://www.indianexpress.com/story-print/852928/

India then had the temerity to approach Portugal’s court, which most correctly said New Delhi had no locus standi: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-07-11/india/32631470_1_salem-extradition-abu-salem-constitutional-court

The latest is that India has given an assurance it would “remain compliant with the Portuguese system. (http://zeenews.india.com/news/nation/india-re-assures-portugal-on-abu-salem-case_832914.html) Presumably this means that the Congress party will not give into the temptation to hang another Muslim in order to satisfy the “collective conscience of society” and score points over the BJP. Should it ever do so, its name will be mud in international fora and its word worthless.

Meanwhile, even as the Indian government was seeking his extradition, it executed a man convicted of the rape and murder of a minor girl. Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged on 14 August, 2004, following an energetic campaign by the wife of West Bengal state chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), to which the chief minister belongs, often claims to speak for the ordinary citizens’ rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to life, but in this case it went along with a demand to deny that right to a convict.

The issue here is not whether the crime of which Dhananjoy Chatterjee was convicted was abhorrent, dastardly or heinous. He maintained his innocence until the very end (see http://www.hindu.com/2004/08/15/stories/2004081509770100.htm). But the fact remains that the Supreme Court reviewed and confirmed his conviction.

The issue is that the state ought not to be killing someone who has been captured and tried, whatever the nature and extent of crimes. The death penalty is usually meted out to those who cannot afford a decent lawyer. The law has to come down equally firmly on the wealthy and the indigent. But throughout the world, it is the indigent who pack death row. Howsoever horrendous the crimes, the well heeled more often than not get off scot-free.

There are many other arguments against the death penalty that need not detain us here. The following links deal with them adequately:

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT50/010/2007/en/f14c87db-d3a2-11dd-a329-2f46302a8cc6/act500102007en.pdf

or

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT50/010/2007/en/f45ed09c-d3a2-11dd-a329-2f46302a8cc6/act500102007en.html

And the following gives extensive links:

http://www.derechos.org/dp/

The takeaway from a comparison of the Abu Salem and Dhananjoy Chatterjee cases is this:

You may commit myriad crimes amounting even to large-scale terrorism in India but so long as you can buy yourself a ticket to an abolitionist country that won’t extradite anyone susceptible to face the death penalty upon return, you escape the death sentence.

In fact, if Abu Salem were to break out and flee to a country such as Canada, he might well evade extradition. Witness Lai Changxing, perhaps China’s most wanted fugitive. His alleged economic crimes would entail the death penalty in his country. He fled to Canada in 1999. Despite the Chinese government’s assurance in recent years that he would not face execution if returned, the Canadian courts took a dim view of that guarantee. He lived in style for years and years. But diplomacy and China’s rising clout eventually prevailed. He has been sent back, but on a no DP guarantee.

Periodically, India’s Hindu nationalists, especially the BJP legislators, cried themselves hoarse demanding that Afzal Guru (Mohammad Afzal), convicted of conspiracy in the 2001 attack on India’s parliament, be hanged forthwith. Congress complied in February 2013. Had he but gotten a passport and ticket out to an abolitionist country, the same BJP would have held out a no DP guarantee.

End this charade. Abolish the death penalty already.

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About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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