Geelani’s Litany

On death row before he was let off, he sees a mockery of justice in capital punishment
COUNTERPOINT
“The police mentioned in my disclosure statement that I had identified the bodies. I refused to sign the statement.”

Sar Geelani is recuperating from a surgery done to extract one of four bullets embedded in his chest that had caused him an infection. These bullets are from an attempt made on his life—for which he holds India’s Intelligence Bureau responsible—in March 2005, a few months after he was acquitted in the Parliament Attack case. He had been accused by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police of having masterminded that terror attack inside Parliament premises on 13 December 2001.

Geelani spent two years on death row before the Delhi High Court set him free, ruling that the circumstantial evidence (of call records between him and other accused) did not ‘unerringly point’ to his guilt. He now teaches Arabic in Delhi’s Zakir Husain College, and has been accorded Z+ category security.

He says that he objects to capital punishment not on moral grounds, but practical. In his experience, investigators have prejudices and investigations are biased. “I don’t say that. The law of the land says that,” he says, “A person can be hanged if and only if the following two conditions are met, namely, that the person is ‘guilty beyond reasonable doubt’ and that the crime is in the nature of ‘rarest of the rare’. But in India, where the outcomes of investigations always hover in the realm of doubt, capital punishment should be abolished.”

Geelani is of the opinion that capital punishment risks denial of justice in far too many cases. He mentions last week’s judgment in the Lajpat Nagar blasts case of 1996. The Delhi High Court acquitted two men who had been sentenced to death by a lower court, and commuted a death sentence to one of life imprisonment for another of the accused. This, after they had languished in jail for 16 years. The court also castigated the Delhi Police for ‘grave prosecution lapses’ and ‘inefficiencies’, which it said place a ‘question mark [on] the nature and truthfulness of the evidence produced...’ as a division bench of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and GP Mittal observed.

Terror cases, Geelani believes, are the worst affected by shoddy police work. In the Parliament Attack case, he expresses frustration over the treatment meted out to Afzal Guru, the prime accused. “Afzal [has been] on death row since 2004. He is perhaps the next one to be hanged. This is the most high profile case where the country’s sovereignty was under attack. In a case of this importance, in the largest democracy of the world, Afzal Guru remained unrepresented by a lawyer at the trial stage. This is against the law of the land.”

The Delhi High Court had upheld the earlier death sentences awarded to Afzal and Shaukat Guru (another accused) “despite the same court making a categorical observation that the papers were forged and evidence fabricated by the police,” says Geelani. “I was exonerated as the court observed that I cannot be linked to the case.”

When the case reached the Supreme Court, all confessional statements were dismissed as unreliable. Shaukat’s death sentence was commuted to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for concealment of facts—for failing to inform the police of what he allegedly knew of a terror plan. That is not what he was charged for, however. “He was finally sentenced for something that he was never accused of at any stage of the trial,” says Geelani.

The courts had accepted that Afzal Guru, a surrendered militant, did not belong to any militant organisation at the relevant time. The Supreme Court also observed that there was no direct evidence of Guru’s involvement in the attack. It also dismissed all confessional statements. The POTA charges against him did not withstand scrutiny either. “Now what is left?” asks Geelani, “His death sentence is based entirely on circumstantial evidence.”

The strongest such evidence against Afzal Guru, according to Geelani, is that he identified the bodies of the assailants who were killed in the event as they tried to force their way into Parliament.

“The police mentioned in my disclosure statement that I had identified the bodies. I refused to sign the statement.”

Afzal Guru’s alleged identification of the bodies was based on the statement of a sub-inspector, HS Gill, who was later sent to jail on corruption charges while the Parliament Attack trials were still underway. According to Geelani, Afzal Guru had said “many times” in the trial court that he had not identified any assailant. Yet, adds Geelani, Gill’s account still went unchallenged in the trial court because Guru had no lawyer to represent him. “My situation would have not been different from Afzal’s had I not been properly represented by lawyers.”

Geelani wonders how an identification of militant bodies, for which the evidence was so inconclusive, could be taken as proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Afzal Guru knew who they were, let alone as proof of his knowledge of their sinister designs.

“The then Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani made a statement in Parliament that [the killed militants’] faces were like Pakistanis’. Advani himself looks like a Pakistani. After all, he was born in Pakis- tan. Pervez Musharraf looks like an Indian as he was born in Delhi’s Nehar- wali Haveli. The court’s contention was that they were Pakistanis simply because no Indian claimed their bodies. So many pictures are published everyday in newspapers listing unidentified bodies, and many of them remain unclaimed. By the court’s logic, all these unclaimed bodies have to be of Pakistanis,” says Geelani, bursting into laughter.

The Supreme Court’s judgment upholding Afzal Guru’s death sentence had read: ‘The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, has shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment [is] awarded to the offender.’

In Geelani’s interpretation of the judgment, “Afzal was made a scapegoat to satisfy the collective conscience of the nation.” He draws from his own experience. “I had become a big terrorist overnight, such a big terrorist that even police officials were afraid of me. They were scared of their own propaganda.”

He pauses to collect his thoughts, and then alleges that court perceptions are shaped by media reports. “This was our first hearing in court after our arrest. It was the special court with a special judge SN Dhingra, I think: he was there on a special assignment too. Shaukat’s wife, Afsan, was crying in court. The judge asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ She wanted to know why she was being held if her husband had done something wrong. I was shocked to hear what the judge said. ‘You should have thought about it earlier before you plotted the Parliament Attack,’ the judge retorted. This was the first time we were in court. The judge had no case details with him. He pronounced a judgment six months before the chargesheet was filed. We were not standing there as ‘the accused’, we were already ‘guilty’.”

Geelani was agonised by much else too. “We were made to sign our statement in custody and not in the presence of a magistrate. But one magistrate appeared in the special court and deposed on oath that we had deposed in front of him, without police presence… [that] only he and his typist were present in the room. I had never seen that man before. I protested… Can you trust a system like this with capital punishment?”