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Trials and tribulations

india Updated: Mar 30, 2007 00:00 IST
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India deludes itself that Ottavio Quattrocchi can be extradited to India. He’s an Italian national who has lived in Malaysia for a decade, and his extradition was ruled out by a Malaysian sessions judge five years ago and then by a high court. Both courts said that the Indian government hadn’t provided enough information to justify sending Quattrocchi to India to stand trial in the Bofors pay-off case.

Indian politicians harbour a misconception that extradition matters are decided by governments. The real decision is taken in courts. And India finds it hard to extradite law-breakers because our police and justice systems are suspect in Western eyes. Western nations don’t trust the evidence that India presents when it requests an individual’s extradition. They think the evidence is fabricated. Unfortunately, this is true sometimes. One dramatic example was that of music composer Nadeem Saifee who fled to Britain after Mumbai Police accused him of plotting music magnate Gulshan Kumar’s murder in 1997.

India requested Nadeem’s extradition from Britain but the London High Court rejected it, saying that Nadeem had been falsely implicated. When India appealed to the House of Lords, the House not only upheld the High Court’s verdict, it also awarded Nadeem £ 920,083 pounds (around Rs 9 crore) in damages, paid by the British government. The High Court’s verdict on Nadeem’s innocence was later vindicated when a Mumbai magistrate acquitted 18 of the 19 people accused of Gulshan Kumar’s murder.

India’s extradition requests succeed only when offenders are accused of sex or terrorist crimes. Three years ago, the US extradited a 56-year-old British paedophile who was wanted by Mumbai Police for abusing children in an orphanage. Canada also extradited a Sikh extremist who had been convicted of hijacking an Indian Airlines plane from India to Pakistan. For other offences, however, India suffers from a permanent credibility gap.

If the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy had happened in Britain, the then Union Carbide chief, Warren Anderson, would have been quickly extradited and punished for causing 4,000 deaths. But no US court will send him to India. It will believe his argument that he won’t get a fair trial in India. The Indian government knows this. Which is why it makes no effort to get Anderson, though he is charged with culpable homicide in a Bhopal court. South Africa would similarly never have sent its former cricket hero, the late Hansie Cronje, to India to stand trial for match-fixing.

Ultimately, extradition treaties don’t matter. Britain and the US have longstanding ones signed with India, but Western societies are so passionate about human rights that they shrink from extraditing a foreign fugitive who tells them two things. One, that he’ll be tortured if he’s sent back to his home country. And two, that he won’t get a fair trial. These arguments were even used by two Sikh terrorists who fled to the US after assassinating General A.S. Vaidya in Pune in 1986. They delayed their extradition to India by 18 months by claiming that being Sikhs, they could expect no justice in a predominantly Hindu India.

Similarly, every Indian Muslim sheltering overseas and wanted in India for Mumbai’s 1993 blasts cites religious persecution to avert or delay extradition. This argument was even used — unsuccessfully — by Abu Salem, who is currently facing trial in India. A Western perception about India being anti-Muslim received a boost from the Gujarat riots. Europe saw the riots as being virtually genocidal.

India’s anti-Muslim image has been further boosted by the current fugitive status of Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain. Ninety-one years old, Husain has been drifting from one country to another for the last six months, too scared to return to India, where he’s charged with painting pictures that insult Hindu gods.

It’s unimaginable in Western societies to prosecute somebody in his 90s even for provable crimes. These societies are appalled that an artist prodigy whose paintings sell for a fortune can be charged with such an offence. Naturally, they think Husain is being targeted because he’s a Muslim. Hypothetically, if Husain was sheltering in Britain and the Indian government were to request his extradition, no British court would grant the request.

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