In season of reforms, have mercy on mercy petitions

September 21, 2012

There’s a new name on India’s list of pending mercy petitions for death row convicts: Ajmal Kasab, the only gunman who didn’t die during the 2008 attacks on Mumbai.

According to a Times of India report, the Maharashtra government wants New Delhi to “expedite his punishment and dispose of his mercy plea, ‘bypassing’ the waiting list.” Kasab hasn’t cited any reason for mercy in his petition.

The plea, which the president of India will review, might not trigger the debate that India needs to have about how long it takes to answer these pleas. The trouble is, it’s not complicated enough.

Kasab was part of the team that embarked by sea from Pakistan, landed in Mumbai, torched the Taj hotel and killed or wounded hundreds of innocent people in several other downtown locations.

The attacks scarred India and altered its dynamics with neighbour and perpetual sparring partner Pakistan. India maintains that the Mumbai attacks were carried out with assistance from Pakistani ‘state actors’.

If New Delhi wants to send a signal that it will not tolerate such attacks, it will have to support the Supreme Court’s Aug. 29 verdict that upheld Kasab’s death sentence.

Mercy petitions are more trouble in cases such as Afzal Guru and Balwant Singh Rajoana. Guru was convicted for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, and sentenced to death in 2005. The president received his mercy plea in 2011. The government has been dithering over his petition, and Guru’s case could inflame passions in an already uneasy Kashmir. Remember what Kashmiri separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said: “Kashmir will erupt if Afzal Guru is hanged”.

Perhaps the way to get politicians to think less about their interests and more about the nation’s interests is to amend the Indian Constitution. That way you can say that you’re just upholding the law of the land.

Article 72, which allows India’s president to pardon people on death row, is vague. I’m not a legal expert, but what if we did this:

  • Set a time during which convicts can file mercy petitions to the government. Maybe three to six months from the date of conviction.
  • Make the Home Ministry adhere to a time limit to send recommendations to the president. Give the president a deadline too so convicts do not languish in jail.
  • Anyone can file mercy petitions on behalf of convicts. Specify, at least to some extent, who is (or isn’t) eligible to file. Draw up guidelines. In short, be specific about the process, but not so much so that there is no room for exceptional circumstances.

Since it’s the season of tough decisions and reforms, Kasab’s mercy petition could be a reminder for the government to handle mercy petitions more quickly. Doing so would allow convicts to be punished for their crimes once, not twice.

(Activists shout slogans as they celebrate the death sentence of Pakistani citizen Kasab in Mumbai. Reuters.)

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