A rare death sentence

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Dubai-based don Aftab Ansari and six others are sentenced to death for their involvement in the attack on the American Centre in Kolkata in 2002, which killed five people.

in Kolkata

THREE years after the attack on the American Centre in Kolkata, which killed five policemen and injured 17 others, the prime accused, the Dubai-based don Aftab Ansari, and six others were sentenced to death by Judge Basudeb Majumdar of the City Civil and Sessions Court. Describing the case as being among the "rarest of the rare", the Judge handed out the sentence on two counts - waging war against the state, under Section 121 of the Indian Penal Code, and possession of arms, under the Arms Act. Not since the verdict was passed on those accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case have so many been sentenced to death by a court in a single case in the country.

On April 26, Ansari and his accomplices Jamiluddin Nasser, Musarat Hussain, Rehan Alam, Shakir Akhtar, Hasrat Alam and Adil Hasan were convicted by the same court on the charges of waging war against the state, conspiracy to wage war, possession of arms, murder, attempt to murder, conspiracy to murder, forgery of valuable securities, forgery for the purpose of cheating, and using as genuine a forged document. Two others, Patel Dilip Kumar and Shakil Malik, were acquitted, as the charges against them could not be proved. They were accused of transferring money for the operation and generally helping the gang in its plan. However, though the two were directed to be released, there is an assault case pending against them, lodged by the authorities of the Presidency Jail in Kolkata.

But not all those involved in the attack could be apprehended. Amir Rezza Khan, Faiz Hussain, Niaz Hussain and Khurram Khaiyam, all from Kolkata, Hassan Imam from Bihar and Sadaqat Ali from Uttar Pradesh, are still at large and the police have very little information on them.

On April 27, when the sentence was being passed, 31-year-old Ansari, wearing black trousers and a white T-shirt, remained calm and defiant. After the Judge had read out his sentence, the bearded Ansari reportedly remarked sarcastically in Hindi: "I am grateful that you passed the sentence today, and did not make us appear again." The other six looked stunned but remained silent.

Syed Shahid Imam, Ansari's lawyer, said the condemned would now challenge the order in the Kolkata High Court. If the order is upheld, then they can move the Supreme Court; failing that, they can as a last resort seek a presidential pardon. Imam reportedly said after the verdict: "This is an unprecedented judgment, where a Judge has pronounced the death sentence on the basis of the provisions of the Arms Act without even looking at the weapon that was used." The day before, when the seven were pronounced guilty, Imam said: "Ansari has been falsely implicated in this case. He was arrested in connection with the Khadim kidnapping but later shown as arrested for the American Centre attack." In July 2001, Partha Roy Burman, an entrepreneur and the managing director of Khadim, a shoe manufacturer, was kidnapped from Kolkata and released only after a huge sum of money was paid as ransom. Investigations later revealed that this money was apparently used as part of a fund to finance the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.

Following the conviction, Susan M. Schultz, Director of the United States Information Service in Kolkata, said: "We commend the Indian government for apprehending and bringing to justice those involved in the attack on the American Centre. The attack, which left five Indian policemen dead, was a reprehensible act of terrorism."

AFTER the death sentence was passed, security within Kolkata was strengthened immediately. According to reports, intelligence agencies fear the possibility of suicide acts by fundamentalist groups. The border shared by Bangladesh and India is being closely watched, as the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-Islami, which has been operating in the border region for some time, might try and send its activists inside West Bengal to carry out surprise attacks. Security around the consulates of the U.S. and the United Kingdom has also been beefed up. Bomb squads have been stationed at the two main railway stations of Howrah and Sealdah, and special security measures have been adopted in strategic locations susceptible to attacks, such as the Howrah Bridge, Vidyasagar Setu and the Writers Buildings. Ansari's sister Sultana Bibi, who lives in Varanasi, is reported to have said that her brother's old gang might take revenge for the death sentence passed on him.

The entire trial took place in a special court inside the Presidency Jail premise, as Aftab is suspected to be having links with Al Qaeda. The State government did not wish to take any chances. Moreover, a week before the judgment was delivered, Ansari was reported to have threatened to kill those who were trying to convict him. On the day the sentence was pronounced, the jail resembled a fortress, and no one except the lawyers were allowed in. The following day, Ansari, Nasser and Akhtar were quietly shifted from the Presidency Jail to the Alipore Central Jail, where they have been kept in solitary confinement. Special guards have been placed to keep a close watch on the prisoners lodged in adjacent cells.

The verdict is the first of its kind delivered in West Bengal. There is no record in the State since Independence of so many being sentenced to death in a single case. "We are witnessing such an order for the first time in Kolkata," said State Home Secretary Amit Kiran Deb. Even the octogenarian hangman Nata Mullick agrees that he has never executed more than two people at one time. However, he does recollect an occasion when he helped his father hang six people; but that was before Independence. Nata Mullick is willing to take on this job if his health permits. "If I cannot do it, one of my family members will. I have trained my successor," he is reported to have said.

Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, former Advocate-General of Tripura, and senior advocate of the Kolkata High Court, does not agree with the judgment. "I do not think that it is a rarest of rare case. The attack on the American Centre might be a terrorist act, and the crime is a terrible one, in which four innocent people died. The punishment should certainly be a harsh one but not a death sentence," said Bhattacharya, who is also the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate for Mayor in the coming civic polls.

EVENTS that led to the present situation began on January 22, 2002, at 6:35 a.m., when gunmen on two motorcycles, under the cover of fog, attacked the USIS, killing four policemen on the spot and injuring 18 others. Another policeman later succumbed to his injuries. In the operation, which did not last more than five minutes, at least 54 rounds of ammunition were fired by the attackers, who, according to eyewitness reports, wore army fatigues, and fired from AK-47 and AK-56 rifles that were concealed under black shawls. The attack took the police so completely by surprise that not a single shot could be fired back in self-defence. The casualty list could have been much higher had it not been for the presence of a police van that happened to be in the line of fire. The incident took place at a time when Ambassador Francis X. Taylor, Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, U.S. Department of State, and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Muller were in New Delhi on an official visit.

The whole plan was masterminded by Ansari and the action plan was drawn up at the house of Jamiluddin Nasser in Tijala. Logistical support was provided by Musarat Hussain. Shakir Akhtar made repeated reconnaissance of the site of attack. Hasrat Alam had drawn up a contingency plan to enable the attackers to escape to Bangladesh, if necessary, while Adil Hasan and Rehan Alam provided shelter for the attackers in Jharkhand.

The day after the attack, on January 23, Ansari was arrested by the Dubai police, as he was about to board a plane to Pakistan. In August charges were framed against Ansari and eight others and the following month their trial in the city sessions court began. In March 2003, The Kolkata High Court, at the request of the State government, gave permission for the trial to take place inside the Presidency Jail to pre-empt any attempt to escape by Ansari. Altogether, 123 witnesses were examined in the course of the trial.

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