Death no penalty

Published : Nov 16, 2007 00:00 IST

S.A. Basha, Al-Umma chief. A file picture. He was given a life term and three years rigorous imprisonment. - PTI

S.A. Basha, Al-Umma chief. A file picture. He was given a life term and three years rigorous imprisonment. - PTI

In the Coimbatore blasts case verdict, the Judge explains why he did not give the death penalty and sent the accused to varying terms in prison.

S.A. Basha,

AFTER a trial that lasted more than five years, the Coimbatore serial bomb blasts case came to an end in late October with the sentencing of the key accused by the Special Court (bomb blasts case). A series of bomb blasts in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, on February 14, 1998, killed 58 people and injured 250. Al-Umma, a militant Muslim organisation, was behind the explosions.

The Judge, K. Uthirapathy, convicted and sentenced 158 of the 168 accused to varying terms of imprisonment. He cited various factors that drove his court to refrain from ordering the capital sentence despite the fact that the nature of the crime committed by the accused would attract no less than the death penalty. Forty-three of the accused were sentenced to single, two or three terms of life imprisonment. Fifteen were sentenced to 13 years rigorous imprisonment (R.I.) and 10 to 10 years R.I. Ninety were awarded lesser punishments and eight were acquitted.

One of the accused, Riaz-ur-Rehman, owner of Indian Explosives Limited, Mysore, turned approver and another, Mohammed Dasthagir, Riaz-ur-Rehmans manager, died when he was in judicial custody.

A 130-member Tamil Nadu Police Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) led by Param Vir Singh, then Inspector General of Police, unravelled the crime in all its dimensions after several months of hard work.

The SIT followed up its preliminary charge sheet of September 28, 1998, with its modified Final Report (popularly called the charge sheet) on May 5, 1999. In it, the SIT clubbed 45 cases into one and cited a case relating to a police combing operation at Tirumal Street, in which eight Al-Umma men were killed, as the mother-case.

Besides defence witnesses, there were about 1,400 prosecution witnesses in the case. It was a huge case. The officers and men of the SIT did a superb, tremendous job, Param Vir Singh, who is now Additional Director, Central Bureau of Investigation, told Frontline from New Delhi.

The Judge pronounced his verdict in a staggered manner, beginning on August 1. On that day, he set free Abdul Nasser Maudany, founder of the Peoples Democratic Party in Kerala and former president of the Islamic Sewa Sangh, who was charged with supplying the high-grade explosives used in the blasts. Another key accused, K. Raju alias Army Raju, also of Kerala, through whom Maudany allegedly supplied the explosives, was also set free. The Judge also found 69 of the accused guilty of offences under various Sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Arms Act, the Explosive Substances Act and the Tamil Nadu Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act, 1992.

On October 24, the court sentenced S.A. Basha, accused number one and founder-president of Al-Umma, to life imprisonment under Section 120-B (conspiracy) of the IPC read with other IPC offences, including those for murder, and three years R.I. under Section 153 A (1) (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc.).

Mohammed Ansari (A-2, accused number 2), State general secretary of Al-Umma, was sentenced to two life terms besides 73 years R.I., and Nawab Khan, Bashas brother, was handed down one life term and 27 years R.I. Bashas son Siddiq Ali, received two life terms and 48 years R.I.

Basith (A-5) was awarded a life term and 38 years RI. The Final Report described Basith as the brain/moving force behind the making of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with different time-delay mechanisms.

The serial bombings, codenamed Operation Allahu Akbar, began at around 4 p.m. when L.K. Advani, then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was scheduled to address an election meeting at R.S. Puram.

According to the charge sheet, seven human bombs armed with instantaneous type of box bombs tied to their waists and throw-type small box bombs were deployed to target Advani. Their plans failed because they could not infiltrate the police cordon and get close to the dais. Besides, Advanis flight was delayed.

However, bombs planted all over the city, in cars, two-wheelers, pushcarts, tea-cans, denim and Rexine bags and so on, exploded, killing 58 persons and injuring about 250. (Frontline, March 20, 1998, and August 24, 2007).

The modified Final Report said the blasts and the subsequent violence were planned and executed by the Al-Umma headed by S.A. Basha as a brutal answer/retaliation for the killing of 18 Muslims in communal riots and police firings and extensive damage to Muslim properties running into crores of rupees during the three days following the stabbing to death of a traffic police constable Selvaraj at Ukkadam, Coimbatore, on November 29, 1997, night by Al-Umma cadre Although such was the immediate cause for the shocking and gruesome occurrences, they were really the culmination of a long series of communal/fundamentalist violence that had afflicted Coimbatore and rather the entire State of Tamil Nadu over the preceding several years from 1983.

The unravelling of the bomb blasts case led to the resolution of several other cases, including the explosions at the Chennai offices of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Munnani.

A highlight of the case was that none of the accused was granted bail during the trial, which began on March 7, 2002. Three were granted bail a few days before the August 1 verdict but they remained in judicial custody in the Central Prison, Coimbatore. The accused went right up to the Supreme Court but they were repeatedly denied bail, said an SIT officer.

In his judgment running to more than 1,714 pages, the Judge explained why he did not award the death sentence. The Special Public Prosecutors had argued that the offence was cruel, diabolical and macabre. The aim of the perpetrators was to cause colossal loss and destruction to society. Hence, the accused deserved the maximum punishment, the Special Public Prosecutors had argued.

Defence counsel said the accused were driven by various agencies to commit the crime. Violence was let loose on Muslims in and around Coimbatore. Muslims attempts to knock on the doors of justice were of no avail because the state machinery did not heed any of their representations, they said. The blasts were an outcome of these factors, they argued and blamed the state for the explosions. Defence counsel urged the court to consider these as mitigating circumstances and award the accused lenient sentences.

The Judge said certain sections of the Muslim society had lost faith in the state machinery and the law of the land but had absolute faith in the laws of the almighty. According to him, the failure of the state machinery on the one hand and the commission of forbidden acts by forces belonging to other community were enough to trigger a chain reaction. The Judge said: This is the lesson that has been learnt in the bitter experience of the colossal explosions that rocked the city of Coimbatore. Under such circumstances, the deterrence theory fails. If the maximum sentence of capital punishment is imposed that is not going to deter the other fundamental elements from committing such a heinous act in future at any other place....

The interests of the accused, according to the Judge, had not been fully and properly safeguarded by proper legal assistance. The court believed that had legal assistance been used properly by the accused more details would have come to light in assisting the court to find out the truth. This court, therefore, considers this issue as a mitigating factor in favour of the accused, he said.

Besides, the fact that none of the accused was granted bail during the trial had deprived them the chance of gathering adequate material to support their plea, the Judge said.

The schedule of examination of witnesses drawn up in a random manner without giving the defence adequate time to prepare itself had also caused prejudice, he said. Many witnesses were examined in the absence of the accused, who at that time had been produced in another court for other cases in which they were involved, he added.

Judge Uthirapthy said: These various factors drive this court to come to a decision to decline from ordering capital sentences despite the fact that the nature of the crime committed by the accused would attract no less than the death penalty. These circumstances and factors, therefore, outweigh the legal ingredients for awarding the death penalty. There cannot be any mercy shown to these accused since their cruel act of commission of this crime goes beyond all horizons and purview of mercy. This court, therefore, would invoke the maximum prescribed sentences contemplated for those penal provisions with which the accused have been charged.

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