The legal journey of Afzal Guru
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On December 13, 2001, around 11.40 am, five men in a white Ambassador, fitted with a red light and Home Ministry sticker, drove into Parliament complex. When challenged by security, they opened fire, killing nine persons — eight security personnel and one gardener. In the shootout, all five attackers were killed.
Within days, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, with the help of leads relating to the car used and cellphone records, arrested four persons — Mohammad Afzal Guru, a former JKLF militant who had surrendered in 1994, his cousin Shaukat Husain Guru, Shaukat's wife Afsan Guru (Navjot Sandhu before marriage) and S A R Gilani, a lecturer of Arabic at Delhi University.
After years of judicial and administrative process, Afzal was hanged to death Saturday morning in Delhi's Tihar jail. The Sunday Express recaps the legal journey he traversed since arrest.
IN POTA COURT
The FIR was lodged by the police on December 13, and recorded as an armed attack by terrorists. After subsequent arrests, all the accused were tried under charges of waging war, conspiracy, murder, attempt to murder etc. Six days later, the provisions of POTA were added to the original charges.
On December 22, 2001, the case was brought before a Special POTA Court under Justice (retd) S N Dhingra, who was then a sessions judge. The trial started on July 8, 2001, and was conducted on a day-to-day basis. It was concluded in the next four months. Relying on clinching circumstantial evidence, the Special Court on December 18, 2001, awarded capital punishment to Afzal, Shaukat and Geelani. Shaukat's wife Afsan was found guilty of concealing the plot and sentenced to five years in jail.
The POTA court justified capital punishment, saying the attack on Parliament was the handiwork of forces which wanted to "destroy the country and cripple it by killing or capturing its entire political executive, including the Prime Minister and the Home Minister... captivate entire legislature and the Vice-President, who were in Parliament."
IN HIGH COURT
All the convicts challenged this verdict in the Delhi High Court. Authoring the judgment, Justice Pradeep Nandarajog confirmed death sentence for Afzal and Shaukat but acquitted suspended lecturer Geelani and Afsan for want of evidence.
In their appeal, the accused raised objections to lack of adequate legal aid during trial, sanction under POTA charges, criminal conspiracy charges, media trial, amongst other legal arguments. The high court, however, after perusal of trial court records, noted that it was not a case of "constructive denial" of counsel to Afzal and that he had "continued with the trial without any objection or grievance" when informed that lawyers of his choice expressed their inability.
In his judgment of October 2003, Justice Nandarajog also dismissed challenges raised to the validity of the sanction under POTA on the grounds of merit and alleged procedural lapses. It further noted Afzal's confessional statements were validly recorded and validly proved.
"The attack was on Parliament, when in session. The sovereignty of the country was attacked. Gravity of the offence is of a magnitude that the collective conscious of the community is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre, to inflict death penalty irrespective of their personal opinion as regards desirability or otherwise of retaining the death penalty," the high court underlined.
IN SUPREME COURT
The high court verdict was challenged by the convicts on the point of guilt as well as by the police on acquittal of two accused. The Supreme Court dismissed Afzal's appeal and upheld the death penalty for him by its judgment in August 2005. Shaukat's punishment was converted from death to 10 years in jail whereas the state's appeal against acquittal of Geelani and Afsan was thrown out.
Afzal also contended before the Supreme Court that he was denied proper legal aid, thereby depriving him of effective defence in the course of trial. He claimed that an inexperienced lawyer was thrust on him as an amicus curiae against his will. He further said the lawyer made concessions with regard to the admission of certain documents and framing of charges without his knowledge and also did not properly cross-examine the witnesses.
The apex court, however, threw out this argument, holding the "trial judge did his best to afford effective legal aid" and that the criticism appeared to be an "afterthought".
After going through the trial court records, the Supreme Court said: "Taking an overall view of the assistance given by the Court and the performance of the counsel, it cannot be said that the accused was denied the facility of effective defence." It also discarded the arguments against validity of sanction and charges under POTA, additional penal charges, credibility of confessional statements.
Maintaining death sentence for Afzal as a conspirator of the attack, the Supreme Court held that "the most appropriate punishment" in this case was death sentence. "The present case, which has no parallel in the history of Indian Republic, presents us in crystal clear terms, a spectacle of rarest of rare cases. The very idea of attacking and overpowering a sovereign democratic institution by using powerful arms and explosives and imperiling the safety of a multitude of peoples' representatives, constitutional functionaries and officials of Government of India and engaging into a combat with security forces is a terrorist act of gravest severity. It is a classic example of rarest of rare cases," it said.
"The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, (had) shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender. The challenge to the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India by these acts of terrorists and conspirators, can only be compensated by giving the maximum punishment to the person who is proved to be the conspirator in this treacherous act," it ruled.
Subsequently, a Delhi trial court in 2006 issued a death warrant for hanging Afzal but the execution was stayed pending his mercy petition, filed through his wife Tabassum Guru with then President A P J Abdul Kalam. Afzal also moved a review petition before the Supreme Court, which dismissed it in January 2007, saying there was "no merit" in it. The mercy petition was finally decided on February 3 this year when President Pranab Mukherjee rejected his plea and on Saturday, he was executed.
WAY TO THE LAST MILE
* Dec 13, 2001: Five terrorists drive into Parliament, gun down nine people and wound at least 15.
* Dec 15: Delhi Police pick up Afzal Guru from J&K and S A R Geelani, a lecturer at Delhi University's Zakir Hussain College. Few days later, they pick up Afsan Guru and her husband Shaukat Hussain Guru.
* Dec 29: Afzal is sent in police remand for 10 days.
* June 4, 2002: Afzal, Geelani, Shaukat and Afsan are charged.
* Dec 18: Trial court sentences Geelani, Shaukat and Afzal to death but acquits Afsan.
* Aug 30, 2003: Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Ghazi Baba, the alleged mastermind of the attack, is killed in a 10-hour encounter with the BSF in Srinagar.
* Oct 29: Geelani acquitted.
* Aug 4, 2005: The Supreme Court confirms Afzal's death sentence but commutes Shaukat's to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment.
* Sep 26, 2006: Court orders that Afzal be hanged.
* Oct 3: Afzal's wife Tabassum Guru files a mercy petition with then President A P J Abdul Kalam.
* Jan 12, 2007: The Supreme Court dismisses Afzal's plea for a review of his death sentence, saying "there is no merit" in it.
* May 19, 2010: Government of Delhi rejects his mercy petition.
* Dec 30: Shaukat released from Tihar Jail.
* Dec 10, 2012: Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde says he will examine Afzal's file after Parliament's Winter Session concludes on December 22.
* Feb 3, 2013: President Pranab Mukherjee rejects his mercy petition.
* Feb 9: Afzal hanged.
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