Making a last ditch effort to save Sarabjit Singh, former Pakistani human rights minister Ansar Burney on Monday petitioned President Pervez Musharraf seeking clemency for the death row prisoner saying his "biggest crime may have been his Indian nationality".
Burney in the mercy petition pleaded that Sarabjit's death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment or he be released since the case against him was "weak" and there was "little to justify the death sentence" awarded to him by a Pakistani court in 1991.
Sarabjit was given capital punishment for his alleged involvement in bomb attacks in 1990. Burney, who is a member of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council, said that "with so many facts in favour of Sarabjit and so little to justify the death sentence awarded to him, it seemed Sarabjit's biggest crime may have been his Indian nationality as no unbiased court would ever sentence a man to death in such a weak case".
Sarabjit's execution was deferred for 30 days by Musharraf last month so that Pakistan's new government could review his case following appeals for clemency from the Indian government. He was originally set to be hanged on April 1.
Burney said he had made "several legal arguments in favour of Sarabjit" and these "meant that Sarabjit could not legally be hanged". He said he had informed Musharraff that a key witness in the case, a man named Shaukat Salim, had said in a TV interview that he had been forced by police to testify against the Indian national.
Salim had said he was forced to testify even though he "had never seen Sarabjit in his life, let alone see him commit an act of terrorism", Burney said.
Other witnesses in the trial too made inconsistent statements. One witness accused Sarabjit in initial police interrogations but later retracted his statement in court, saying that he had never seen Sarabjit in his life.
Sarabjit, who Pakistan claims is Manjit Singh, was sentenced to death for alleged involvement in four bomb blasts in Punjab province that killed 14 people in 1990. His family denies he is a spy as claimed by Pakistan and insists that he accidentally strayed into Pakistani territory.
Burney also pointed out that none of the four FIRs registered in connection with the bomb attacks mentioned Sarabjit's name or his description. When he was arrested on the night of August 30, 1990 at the border near Kasur city, he was actually apprehended for "illegally crossing" the frontier.
"After eight days, the police implicated him in the terrorist bombings. He had not been arrested red-handed," Burney said. Referring to other loopholes in the case against Sarabjit, he said: "One magistrate recorded statements of the witnesses in all four cases one in Faislabad and three in Lahore even though the cases were lodged in four different police stations and two different districts.
"Four different magistrates should have recorded the statements. Not one of the statements recorded in front of this magistrate were taken under oath."
Burney also said Sarabjit was not produced in an identity parade in front of a magistrate and was instead "brought in front of witnesses without a magistrate being present". He added: "The police informed the witnesses that Sarabjit was the culprit, just as Shaukat Salim, a key witness in the case," had said.
The rights activist pointed out that three of the four review petitions filed in regard to Sarabjit's case were still pending in the Supreme Court and "he could not be hanged until he had the chance to defend himself in those three cases as well".
Burney said, "Sarabjit's apparent admission of guilt, which was recorded by Pakistani authorities and shown on TV, was dismissed on the grounds that a confession while in confinement held no evidentiary value in the eyes of the law, as it is obvious that no sane person will make such a confession unless he was pressurised or forced to do so."
He added that "there was no sufficient or proper evidence to justify the death sentence to Sarabjit, especially after the retraction of statements by witnesses". The death sentence awarded to Sarabjit is against "the settled principles of law" and it is "hard to believe that the Supreme Court itself did not dismiss Sarabjit's death sentence after all these fact were produced before it," Burney said.
Under these circumstances, "there is a settled principle of law that the benefit of the doubt should always been given to the accused... But contrary to it, Sarabjit was still sentenced to death with so much doubt, irregularities and illegalities in his trial," he contended.
Calling on Musharraf to halt Sarabjit's hanging and to review his case, Burney pointed out that the Indian national had already spent 18 years on death row and "it was against morality to hang a person after already keeping him behind bars for so many years for the same case".
Burney also said he would soon be sending another petition to the President to halt "all hangings in the country". Sarabjit's wife, two daughters and sister would come here to visit him on Wednesday.