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Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2006, 04:31 GMT 05:31 UK
Spotlight on the Indian President
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Mohammed Afzal
Afzal's mercy petition is pending with the government

Mohammad Afzal, who is on death row for helping militants in an attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, has lived to see another day.

A mercy petition filed on his behalf with President APJ Kalam is under consideration and until a decision is taken on it, Afzal cannot be hanged.

Afzal was due to hang at Delhi's Tihar jail on Friday.

Now the spotlight is on President Kalam: will he show mercy and commute Afzal's death penalty into life sentence?

It is generally believed that President Kalam is personally not in favour of capital punishment.

"I wonder why death penalty is always given only to poor people in our country," he is reported to have commented sometime ago.

But the president's office says his personal beliefs in this matter are of little consequence.

Hanging fire

Constitutional experts say there is a clearly laid out procedure which he has to follow.

The president's office forwards the mercy petition to the federal government for its views. The federal government also seeks the opinion of the local government- in this case Delhi, where the attack took place.

Finally, the decision of the federal cabinet is conveyed to the president.

It will be a big mistake to hang Afzal. It will turn him into a martyr
Shanti Bhushan, constitutional expert
If the cabinet approves the death penalty, and the president is not happy with the decision, he can send it back for reconsideration.

But if the council of ministers ratifies the decision, the president has no option but to accept it.

In such a situation, say experts, the only way the president can get around it is by choosing not to act.

President Kalam
President Kalam is reported to be opposed to death penalty

"The president cannot violate the advice of the government. But as there is no time limit by when he has to take a decision, he can choose to do nothing," says constitutional expert, Shanti Bhushan.

Perhaps that is why there are at least 20 clemency petitions pending with the president.

Officials say at least a dozen of them have been inherited by President Kalam from his predecessors.

Some of these petitions have been hanging fire for more than a decade.

'Rarest of rare'

More than 100 countries have abolished capital punishment, but India continues to award death penalty in what it calls "the rarest of the rare cases".

For years now, human rights activists have been calling for abolishing it and there is an ongoing debate between the supporters of pro-life and capital punishment.

But with the Afzal case, the debate has intensified.

Protests have erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir - Afzal's birthplace - demanding that his death sentence is commuted.

Tabassum Guru, the wife of Mohammad Afzal
Afzal's wife has submitted a mercy plea to the president

Human rights activists also say his clemency petition should be accepted.

Mr Bhushan says commuting Afzal's death sentence is "in the interest of the country and society".

"It will be good for India. The government has to take a compassionate view. It will be a big mistake to hang Afzal. It will turn him into a martyr."

"It will [also] alienate the Kashmiri youth who will think they are being victimised by India," he says.

But India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is exhorting the president to reject the mercy petition.

And the families of the security forces killed during the attack on parliament have threatened to return their honours and medals if the death sentence is commuted.

As the voices get louder, the pressures on the president - and the government - continue to grow.

As many say, it is a choice between life and death.

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