(Updated in 2023)

For the benefit of non-Indians: Abu Salem (Abu Saleem Ansari) was 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:


India sought his extradition and 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 then (as now again) Hindu supremacist BJP government and its then 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.

In 2011, a Portuguese court decided it had had enough. It sought to revoke 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

India, then under Congress rule, gave 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

This meant that the Congress party would not give into the temptation to hang another Muslim in order to satiate the “collective conscience of society” and score points over the BJP, as it had done in the Afzal Guru case. More on that below. 

Meanwhile, even as India 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 a shrill campaign by the wife of the then West Bengal 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). The Supreme Court reviewed and confirmed his conviction. Since then, leading researchers from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata have established that Mr Chatterjee was framed. (https://scroll.in/article/741784/how-india-hanged-a-poor-watchman-whose-guilt-was-far-from-established)

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. “Equqlity before the law” is enshrined in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which India contributed to 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:




And the following gives extensive links:


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

You may be convicted/accused of having committed 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 DP already.


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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  1. walkerjay says:

    How much is Indian authorities’ words worth?
    In 2002, the then deputy PM and Home Minister L.K. Advani had given an assurance to Portugal that Abu Salem (Abu Saleem Ansari) would face neither the death penalty nor a sentence of more than 25 years (the maximum in Portugal) if extradited to India.
    Subsequently, Indian authorities, with the judiciary acquiescing, tried to renege on the deal by filing additional charges and the Portuguese judiciary has been understandably furious.
    Now at long last the SCI seems to be pulling its weight:
    ‘SC asks Home Secy to clarify commitment on sentence to extradited gangster, Abu Salem’
    A more detailed report:
    ‘Sovereign Commitment To Portugal Binding?’, Supreme Court Asks Centre In Abu Salem’s Case: “The Union of India gives assurance to a foreign country. Does it stand by it or not?”, the bench asked.’
    Would the time that Abu Salem has already spent behind bars not amount to his having served his debts to society? How dangerous is he now and are the authorities so lacking in the means to ensure he stays harmless once out?
    Back in 2010 I’d written this blog post:
    ‘Abu Salem and the Absurdity of India’s Death Penalty Regime’
    Next time a wanted person armed with a passport and a Schengen visa sneaks into Portugal, with what face will Indian authorities approach the courts there?
    And how’ll all this influence courts in other jurisdictions: witness already the progress in the Nirav Modi and Vitthal Mallya cases (assuming the Indian government is serious about them: after all, rich Hindu and not Muslim gangsters, right?)

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