Crime and punishment Vs life and death

S Madhusudhana Rao

A national debate is raging over whether Yakoub Memon, one of the architects of 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, should be hanged or his death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment. Most of the arguments and comments, appearing in the print media and on social sites, prefer keeping him in jail to ending his life on the gallows.

Execution as a way to deter heinous crimes is universally frowned upon and whenever a death penalty is imposed on a criminal by a court of law it triggers a fierce debate in countries where the capital punishment is in vogue.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

India is among those that have not abolished death penalty or executions, though these are few compared to other countries. In recent years, the lone Pak gunman Ajmal Kasab who was caught red-handed during the Mumbai terror attacks was executed in 2012 and a year later Mohammed Afzal Guru, the mastermind of 2001 parliament attack. Both hangings had been carried out amid controversies.

Now, the countdown for Yakoub Memon has started with the Supreme Court dismissing on Tuesday his curative petition for reconsideration of death penalty and commuting it to life imprisonment. Earlier, the President had rejected Yakoub’s mercy plea. Meanwhile, with all lifelines exhausted, his family and legal team has made a last-ditch attempt to save the life of the condemned accused by moving the apex court, once again, saying relevant procedures and guidelines were not followed in awarding him death sentence.

Yakoub’s life is hanging between the Supreme Court’s decision and gallows at Nagpur Central Jail. If there is any last-minute reprieve, it will come on technical grounds or through legal loopholes. Otherwise, the stage is set to tighten the noose around Yakoub’s neck at 7am on July 30.

Not surprisingly, the issue has taken a political hue and communal tinge with All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) decrying the capital punishment for Yakoub. The party chief Asaduddin Owaisi in a Facebook post questioned why Yakoub should be hanged when he was not arrested but surrendered and helped the Indian government to nail down Pakistan’s involvement in Mumbai serial blasts.

Also, the fiery member in parliament from Hyderabad said the death sentence of those convicted in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case had been commuted to life terms and felt that Yakoub is facing execution because he belongs to a particular religion.

Reacting to Owaisi’s observations, BJP has accused AIMIM of politicizing the hanging issue while National Congress Party (NCP) said, “we must not see too much of communalism or politics into it.” Maintaining that the death sentence would not serve the interest of justice, CPM has urged the government to defer Yakoub’s hanging since he had chosen to surrender and cooperate with Indian authorities. “He also brought his family back to India to stand trial. Yet, he was singled out for the death sentence while the main perpetrators are at large. Even those convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case with the death sentence have had their sentences commuted to life.”

Similar view was reportedly voiced by B Raman, former head of the Pakistani desk in Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) who coordinated the operation to bring back Yakub Memon to India from Karachi in 1994. According to ANI news agency, Raman wrote an unpublished article in 2007 saying he must not be hanged. In his article on Memon, Raman had reportedly said that his cooperation with investigating agencies needed to be taken into consideration when deciding whether the death penalty should be implemented.

While the law takes its own course, not unduly influenced by public opinion or swayed by sentiment, the apex court’s rulings in Rajiv assassination case and observation on life term are interesting in the light of setting a date for Yakoub’s death.

The Supreme Court, on Thursday, laid down terms to release those who were sentenced to life after completion of 14 or more years. The ruling followed Tamil Nadu government’s unilateral decision last year to free seven life convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. It was challenged by the central government in the apex court, arguing that the state could not exercise executive power to remit the life terms since the suicide bomb attack was conspired by foreigners (Sri Lankans) with local Tamilians’ help and investigated by a central agency (CBI).

In fact, among the seven lifers the Jayalalithaa government had proposed to release, the apex court had commuted three convicts’ death sentence as there was a delay in deciding on their mercy pleas. In the other four cases, the TN government wanted to remit their sentences and free all of them.

On central government’s plea, the apex court directed all state governments, including TN, not to free lifers, pending a decision that was delivered on Thursday. Under the interim order, a lifer accused of murder or rape or both; a convict sentenced to a specific number of years in jail by a high court or the apex court; those serving life terms in cases investigated by central agencies, etc. are not eligible for remission.

The Supreme Court has also observed, according to press reports, that death is better than life imprisonment as life-long incarceration of a criminal will kill his hopes and aspirations. The court has wondered whether it would serve any purpose.

When the renewed pleas for commuting Yakoub’s death penalty is seen in the light of apex court’s guidelines/observations, it’s worth watching what position the highest court of the land would take on the condemned convict.

Irrespective of the legal view, the larger question before the public is: should repentance, admission of guilt, self-reform and the like be given a chance in reforming criminals and convicts of heinous offences?

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