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Indian execution sparks protests, accusations of politics

India today executed Mohammad Afzal Guru, a convict in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. Carrying out the death sentence, handed down in 2002 and upheld by the Supreme Court of India in 2005, was a major demand of India's main opposition party, the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party.

The execution came less than three months after India executed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Like Kasab, the decision to execute Mr. Afzal Guru was not announced in advance. Neither his family nor his lawyer were informed before he was hanged at 8 am in Delhi's Tihar jail. His body has been buried on the jail premises; the family has asked for the body.

“It is an egregious violation of due process and deliberate thwarting of access to justice,” says lawyer and anti-death penalty campaigner Yug Mohit Chaudhry. "The secret, shameful, and surreptitious manner is most unbecoming of a democracy.”

India’s home secretary R.K. Singh told a press conference that due process was followed: “The President rejected Afzal Guru's mercy petition on February 3. After that, we followed the jail manual and his hanging took place today.”

The execution is being seen by analysts as the ruling Congress party’s way of regaining public confidence in the wake of several corruption scandals and protests over the recent Delhi gang-rape. Political commentator Seema Mustafa says the sudden decision to execute Afzal Guru, after years of dilly-dallying, is part of a Congress party effort to improve its position for the 2014 general elections. “The Congress in its usual cynical manipulation of the votes is trying to eat into the majority constituency with this action,” she says.

Executions had become more rare up until Kasab's – the first in India in eight years. Like Kasab's hanging in November, Azfal Guru's came just ahead of a parliament session. “I would just say it's extremely tragic if Indian democracy is going to survive on executing someone or the other before every Parliament session,” says lawyer Vrinda Grover. Congress party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi called such suggestions about the timing "irresponsible and childish."

Another Congress spokesperson, Rashid Alvi, cast the decision as a tough message to would-be terrorists. "We have sent the message to the world that we cannot tolerate terrorism at any cost. If someone tries to commit [an act of terror], he will be punished. The people of our country and the government have zero tolerance against terrorism.”

The Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari also addressed the media emphasizing that "Congress [is] not soft on terror" and added that "national security decisions [are] not influenced by political considerations."

The five militants who carried out the Parliament raid died in the attack, after they had killed five policemen, a security guard, and a gardener.

Azfal Guru had earlier been a guerrilla militant in the effort to end Indian control over Kashmir, but had surrendered to Indian security forces long before the Parliament attack. India blamed the incident on Pakistan-based militant groups active in Kashmir and convicted Azfal Guru of helping plan it.

Azfal Guru had maintained that he was framed, and he protested that he was not given a lawyer of his own choice. In his confessional statement in the trial court, Azfal Guru had said that he had been asked to look after six men by the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Task Force, and that is all he did, and was now being implicated for it.

While the execution was welcomed by political parties, some of which celebrated it on the streets, a group of protesters in Delhi was attacked by the police with batons. Twenty-one of them were arrested. Protests rocked the Kashmir Valley despite a curfew; 40 were injured. Kashmiri leaders who seek to free the Valley from Indian control have called for a three-day strike.

In Delhi, the police detained Kashmiri academic S.A.R. Geelani, himself an acquitted accused in the Parliament attack case, after he appeared on television channels condemning the execution. Mr. Geelani is also the working president of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, which in a statement described the hanging as illegal: “Afzal’s wife Tabassum had filed a clemency petition demanding justice for her husband who never throughout the trial got an opportunity to defend himself and demand justice.”

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