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India's secret executions raise concerns

Saturday - 2/23/2013, 6:30am  ET

NIRMALA GEORGE
Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) -- For 11 years the family of a convicted terrorist waited and wondered about his fate as he sat on death row. Two weeks ago they found out -- from television. Mohammad Afzal Guru had been hanged in secrecy in a faraway jail in New Delhi. A government letter informing them of the imminent hanging arrived at their home in Kashmir two days after he was dead.

"No words can describe the pain. It was like a bolt from the sky. Our whole family is still locked in that moment. We're still struggling to reconcile with that moment," said Yasin Guru, the dead man's cousin.

India has hanged two men in the past three months, its first executions in eight years. In a departure from past practice, both were done in secrecy. Rights activists worry the government has set a precedent that could impact the nearly 500 people on death row in India, including four men whose mercy pleas -- their last hope of life -- were rejected by India's president last week.

"The new practice of executing in secret without prior notification to relatives is deeply worrying," said G. Ananthapadmanabhan, who heads the India chapter of Amnesty International.

Three months earlier, Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman of a 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, was hanged in equal secrecy. His execution was announced several hours later.

Many believe that the government wanted to avoid violent protests in Kashmir -- where a separatist campaign has just begun to wane -- that would have erupted had Guru's hanging been announced beforehand.

But that's no consolation to his family or relevant to human rights activists and lawyers who see the two secret hangings as an assault on the values of democratic India.

Guru was convicted in the 2001 attack on India's Parliament that killed 14 people when five heavily armed gunmen entered the high-security parliament complex and opened fire. Eight police personnel were killed before the five attackers were shot and killed. A gardener also died.

Guru's wife, 13-year-old son and other family members were stunned when they heard on television news that he had been executed, said Yasin Guru, the cousin. Convicts facing imminent execution are normally allowed a last meeting with their families.

"The world's biggest democracy did not even have the courtesy to inform us," he said, adding the family was now demanding that the government hand over his body, which has been buried in Tihar jail in New Delhi, where he was executed Feb. 9.

The government says it sent a letter, dated Feb. 6, informing Guru's family of the execution. But it was mailed Feb. 8, one day before his execution and reached his family in Sopore in Kashmir on Feb. 11, two days after Guru was hanged.

"The most distressing failure of official compassion and public decency was in denying Afzal Guru's wife and teenage son the chance to meet him for the last time before his execution," activist Harsh Mander wrote in the Hindustan Times newspaper.

T.R. Andhyarujina, a former solicitor general of India, called Guru's execution "an inhumane act" that serves as "the most callous death sentence carried out by the government of India."

Kasab, the convict in the Mumbai terror attack, was a Pakistani. India said it informed Pakistan about the imminent execution and asked Islamabad to inform his family. Kasab's family did not claim his body.

There was little outcry over his execution, partly because of the deep revulsion that his actions evoked in India. The two and a half day attack by Kasab and his comrades in November 2008 left 166 people dead and is seared in the memory of most Indians. Because Kasab was a foreigner with no local ties, family or support, his execution did not cause the same kind of blowback that Guru's did.

Most of that anger was evident in Kashmir which erupted into violence after the news of Guru's hanging came out. Many Kashmiris also believe that he did not receive a fair trial.

Even Kashmir's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, an ally of the Indian government, said it was unacceptable that the family was not told of the execution and allowed to say goodbye.

"If we are going to inform someone by post that his family member is going to be hanged, there is something seriously wrong with the system," he said.

The secrecy goes against the humanitarian values the Indian state professes to uphold, said Rebecca John, a Supreme Court lawyer.

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