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Just acquittal, unjust suspicion

In some ways, the Supreme Court's verdict in the December 13, 2001 Parliament attack case is a corroboration of the ruling delivered by the Delhi High Court two years ago. The apex court has confirmed the conviction and sentence awarded to Mohammed Afzal, the key accused in the case, and upheld the acquittal of S.A.R. Geelani, the Delhi college lecturer, and Afsan Guru, the wife of another accused. However, there are key differences between the two judgments. While the Supreme Court did the right thing by confirming the acquittal of Mr. Geelani, it made some observations that are essentially irrelevant and should have been avoided. In contrast to the Delhi High Court, which held that the evidence "does not even remotely, far less definitely" establish Mr. Geelani's guilt, the apex court recorded the unwarranted observation that the "needle of suspicion" pointed towards him. It is one thing for a court to maintain that the evidence is insufficient to convict someone; this is the equivalent of saying the charge against that person cannot stand in law. It is quite another to give expression to mere feelings of `suspicion' that have no bearing on evidentiary matters and are no basis at all "to convict a person," as the court itself has stated in the judgment.

Mr. Geelani, who has already suffered much, could have done without the smear of judicial suspicion. He was arrested, detained, and accused in a case in which the prosecution relied on extraordinarily flimsy evidence. He was awarded the capital punishment by a designated POTA court that made a string of speculative inferences. The court's shockingly ill-reasoned judgment bore a similarity to that of the designated TADA court, which sentenced 26 accused wholesale to death in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. In February 2005, Mr. Geelani was shot and injured in mysterious circumstances that showed the Delhi police in very poor light. At another level, the apex court's verdict in the Parliament attack case highlights the inherent danger of capital punishment, which, aside from its inherent inhumanity, provides no safeguard against innocent people being legally murdered. The Supreme Court's modification of the death penalty imposed on Shaukat Husain Guru to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment is another instance of the award and withdrawal of this barbaric punishment all too frequently — a phenomenon that suggests that neither the trial court nor the High Court showed the mandated restraint before imposing a punishment supposed to be imposed only in "the rarest of the rare cases." The Hindu has long been opposed to all capital punishment. However, there is no warrant for any special sympathy for Mohammed Afzal whose role as a conspirator in the Parliament attack case — which has been detailed by the prosecution and confirmed by three courts of law — has been established beyond a shadow of doubt.

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