The Supreme Court on Monday was hearing the petition of Yakub Memon, the lone death row convict in the 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts, who has sought a stay on his execution set for July 30 on the ground that he has not exhausted all legal remedies available to him.
Memon, who has spent over two decades in jail, had also said that the death warrant for his execution was issued when his curative petition was pending consideration by the court.
The SC had rejected Yakub's curative petition saying it was void of merit on July 21. On the same day, he filed a mercy petition before the Maharashtra governor seeking commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment. He also approached the apex court afresh for staying his execution. If his pleas are dismissed, he will be hanged at the Nagpur Central Jail on July 30, the day he turns 53.
The apex court by its March 21, 2013 verdict upheld his death sentence while commuting the death sentence of 10 others (one having died subsequently) to life imprisonment. The court on April 9 again dismissed Yakub's plea for the review of his death sentence, as it had earlier dismissed a similar plea seeking a recall of its March verdict.
Yakub and 11 others were slapped with the death penalty by the special TADA court in July 2007 for the dozen explosions that ripped through India's financial capital, killing nearly 260 people at various landmarks and leaving more than 700 injured.
Yakub, a chartered accountant and the only well-educated member of the Memon family, was found guilty of criminal conspiracy, arranging money for buying vehicles used by the bombers and organising air tickets to Dubai for some of them. He has for long said that he had no direct participation in planning or executing the bombings.
He has been behind bars since 1994, when the CBI purportedly arrested him in Kathmandu. Sources in the Mumbai Police department said he had returned voluntarily. Tiger Memon, along with mob boss Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees Ibrahim, are considered to be the key conspirators behind the 1993 blasts.
Indian investigators have accused Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI of aiding the plotters, an allegation that Islamabad has denied. Both Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim are believed to be holed up in the neighbouring country.
Growing support for Yakub's plea
A day ahead of the SC hearing of his last-ditch appeal, hundreds of politicians, jurists and activists appealed to President Pranab Mukherjee to spare Yakub's life, adding fuel to a raging debate over the issue on a day actor Salman Khan sought mercy for the death row convict.
The signatories included eminent lawyer Ram Jethmalani, BJP's Shatrughan Sinha, Congress's Mani Shankar Aiyer, CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury, CPI's D Raja, actor Naseeruddin Shah, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, activist Tushar Gandhi, lawyer Vrinda Grover and economist Jean Dreze.
"Blood-letting and human sacrifice will not make this country a safer place; it will, however, degrade us all," said the signatories. "Grant of mercy in this case will send out a message that while this country will not tolerate acts of terrorism, as a nation we are committed to equal application of the power of mercy and values of forgiveness, and justice."
Bollywood superstar Khan had posted a series of tweets on Sunday to argue against Memon's hanging but later apologised after his comments sparked strong reactions from political parties, social media users and his own father.
"I had tweeted that Tiger Memon should hang for his crimes and I stand by it," he said, referring to the convict's brother. "What i also said is that Yakub Memon should not hang for him. I have not said or implied that Yakub Memon is innocent."
The clarification from Khan, who was himself convicted in a deadly hit-and-run accident this year, came after dozens of angry protesters, many of them shouting slogans and waving BJP flags, gathered outside his Mumbai home and demanded an apology.
"My dad called & said I should retract my tweets as they have the potential to create misunderstanding. I here by retract them," the actor tweeted. "I would like to unconditionally apologise for any misunderstanding I may have created unintentionally."
Protests erupted against Khan in several parts of Maharashtra as state revenue minister Eknath Khadse said those sympathising with Memon should also be punished, while special prosecutor in the blasts case, Ujjwal Nikam, called the actor's tweets an attempt to "undermine the image of the Indian Judiciary."
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi also sparked a row by saying Yakub was being hanged because he belonged to a particular religion while the death sentences of those convicted in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi were commuted to life imprisonment.
In response, the Bharatiya Janata Party on Sunday said efforts were being made to give communal colour to the death penalty to Yakub and asked people not to question the court verdict.
Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said the court's decision had come and "we must all follow the course of the law", but questioned the BJP government for supporting the hanging of Yakub while "asking agencies to proceed slowly in bomb blast cases like Malegaon, Modasa, Samjhauta express, Ajmer Dargah Sharif involving people from the Sangh".
However, former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju called Yakub's death sentence a "gross travesty of justice" as the evidence based on which he had been found guilty was "very weak".
"This evidence is retracted confession of the co-accused and alleged recoveries," he said and added that "everyone knows how confessions are obtained by the police in our country by torture."
Another former apex court judge, justice Harjit Singh Bedi, said in a letter to The Indian Express that the SC should take suo moto notice of his article and only after hearing both sides, remand the case to the trial court to take further evidence on the question of the sentence or, in the alternative, the evidence itself. He also mentioned that he was against the imposition of death penalty.
Yakub's wife, Rahin, also pleaded for her husband’s death penalty to be reduced to life imprisonment, saying she believed he was innocent and had willingly surrendered to authorities.
"I have full faith in the judiciary. I ask for pardon from the government of India for Yakub so his death sentence can be commuted," she told a news channel.
(With agency inputs)