What’s dead wrong about Afzal Guru’s execution

Okay. Now that we have a little bit of distance from the events surrounding Afzal Guru’s hanging, what lessons have we learnt from the episode?

Let’s first of all divorce the debate on capital punishment from this case. Yes, there is a strong philosophical argument against capital punishment. But that argument applies as much to the people who committed the Delhi gang rape and murder as it does to Guru. It is a separate issue and we should not confuse this matter with the larger philosophical debate.

Secondly, let’s consider whether Guru was given a fair trial. The argument of many of his supporters is that a) he was denied the legal resources he needed and b) that he was a relatively minor conspirator and, therefore, did not deserve the death penalty. Life imprisonment would have been enough.

As for the fair trial criticism, it suffers from an essential weakness. The same courts that sentenced Guru to death acquitted other people charged with the same offence. If the whole legal system was biased against those involved in this case, then why were the others acquitted?

As for legal representation, it is true that Guru did not have the benefit of great lawyers such as Ram Jethmalani who managed to get one of the other accused acquitted. But equally, it is as true that no justice system can guarantee that top lawyers will appear for every accused. Guru did have representation and at least one of the lawyers who appeared on his behalf is well-known and respected.

My response to all those prosperous activists who now say that Guru was denied a fair trial with adequate legal representation is this:
why didn’t all of you band together and raise funds for his defence when the case was before the courts if you are so convinced of his innocence? It would have made more sense to do something then rather than complain now.

As for the business of whether he deserved life imprisonment rather than capital punishment, I concede that the point is valid. On the other hand, if you do have a judicial system and a death sentence is confirmed by the highest court in the land, then I think all of us are obliged to respect what the judges say. We can disagree with them. But disagreement is not proof of injustice.

Thirdly, one extreme position, espoused by internationally renowned activists, is that the Parliament attack itself may have been a set-up organised by the Indian state. And that even if the attack was genuine, the case against Guru and the others was a complete frame-up.

I don’t have much time for conspiracy theories. But here’s my response: if those who say that Guru was convicted without evidence also claim that the government of India engineered the Parliament attack then they must provide evidence for their assertion. You cannot, on the one hand, blame the courts for convicting without evidence and on the other, make wild allegations which are also not backed by any hard evidence.

That leaves two issues. Did we wait too long to hang him after the appeals process was completed? Yes, we did. There is no excuse for taking so long to implement the court’s decision when a man’s life hangs in the balance. It gives the impression that the sentence may never be carried out and then, when the execution does take place, the outrage is even greater because it is magnified by the element of surprise. I think that Parliament should pass a law or the courts should issue a direction setting a deadline for the time period in which mercy petitions must be disposed of.

Should we have allowed his relatives to meet him and should we have handed Guru’s body back to them?

I can understand the argument for not returning the body for fear that his tomb will become some sort of shrine for separatists and would-be terrorists. But there is no argument at all for not allowing his loved ones to meet him. The government says that if they had informed his family about the execution then the news would have leaked and there would have been protests. This is plain silly. There were protests anyway when the execution took place so it is not clear what difference it would have made to let his family see him.

The problem with those like me who wish to defend the Indian state in this matter and to argue that the government behaved fairly and reasonably is that we cannot defend the secrecy surrounding the execution. To send a letter informing the family by speed post smacks of a callous disregard for human feelings and an utter contempt for people who are blameless. (Guru was a terrorist but his wife and son are innocent).

By behaving in this manner the government has played into the hands of India’s critics. Our claim is that the judicial process was open and transparent as indeed it was. But by conducting the execution in this manner, we have damaged our own case. We have suggested that we are not transparent and that we like to kill people by stealth.

There will be times when the state has to take a human life. But let there never be a time when India loses sight of the basic values of humanity.

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