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Hours before hanging, Delhi slackens rope

Calcutta, June 24: Inside Cell No. 3, an FM radio crackled to life at 5.30 pm to tell its sole listener that he had been snatched back from the jaws of a noose dangling a few feet away, oiled and coiled to kill within a matter of hours.

Dhananjoy Chatterjee, condemned to death for raping and murdering a teenager and marked out to hang at 4.30 am on Friday, apparently felt “relieved”.

That feeling is not new to the 42-year-old convict, who, a decade and four months earlier, had similarly escaped death when his first hanging order was stayed.

The reprieve — it could be a fleeting one this time unless there is an extraordinary political or legal intervention — came about after a series of dramatic events unfolded simultaneously in the corridors of the executive and the judiciary.

If a fax from the Union home ministry dropped the first hint of a pushback of the hanging, an eleventh-hour appeal before the Supreme Court set the stage for another legal showdown.

The home ministry missive advised the state government to put the hanging on hold, seeking time till the President decides on a mercy petition moved by Dhananjoy’s mother and a few social organisations.

The President had earlier rejected a similar appeal by Dhananjoy, who was convicted of raping and killing 14-year-old Hetal Parekh on March 5, 1990, in her apartment building where he worked as caretaker-cum-liftman.

The new petition pleading to commute the death sentence into a life term was forwarded to the home ministry for examination. Around 11 am, the ministry faxed the stay advisory.

The formal order from the state government took till 7 pm to reach Alipore Central Jail, which was all set for the hanging. The jail was still not taking any risk: a generator set was kept on standby.

The developments in the Supreme Court were no less dramatic. A vacation bench convened after regular working hours — that too in a judge’s chamber — to hear the petition moved by Dhananjoy’s brother, Bikash, who contested the Bengal governor’s earlier rejection of a mercy plea. The court, too, stayed the hanging and scheduled a hearing at 2 pm tomorrow.

“I am feeling relieved, the weight of death is off my shoulders,” an insider quoted Dhananjoy as saying when he was formally intimated of the stay.

Hours before, he had had what would have been his last lunch: a modest affair of rice, pulses, fried fish and vegetables.

Dhananjoy’s fate seemed sealed earlier this month when the governor rejected the petition. The convict was immediately shifted to the condemned cell.

Nata Mullick, the state’s 81-year-old executioner, was then brought into the picture and several trial runs were carried out. Faced with a shortage of hangmen, the government also agreed to offer a job to Mullick’s grandson.

Around 5 pm, Mullick was in bed when reporters told him about the stay. “Dhananjoy’s family may be smiling but what about the Parekhs'” asked Mullick, who looked upset and worried about the fate of the job promise.

At Dhananjoy’s Bankura home, his father, Bangshidhar, and his mother broke down; his wife Purnima did not show any emotion. In Mumbai, the Parekhs remained incommunicable.

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