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Life for death-row soldier

New Delhi, Oct. 28: Defence minister A.K. Antony has commuted to life imprisonment a death sentence given by an army Summary General Court Martial after agonising over the decision for more than a year.

The government has refused to confirm the death sentence given by a court martial to the soldier who was found guilty of murdering his superior, a senior defence ministry official told The Telegraph.

The government’s decision lends itself to two contrasting interpretations. At one level, it is a signal to the army that it should be more sensitive in dealing with charges of “fragging” — soldiers killing superiors. At another, it supports taking a rigid position — short of confirming death sentences — that will deter juniors from challenging or threatening their officers.

On February 26, 2007, the court martial sentenced Sepoy Suresh Chandra Behera of 28 Rashtriya Rifles to death for killing his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Saket Saxena. The incident took place at Harwan on the outskirts of Srinagar on the night of October 31, 2006.

Again on May 18, 2007, another court martial sentenced to death Sepoy Satyam Kumar of a Northern Command signals unit for killing his superior, Havildar Padmarajan, on October 28, 2006.

Successive courts martial in 2007 sentenced at least five soldiers to death for killing their superior officers or comrades in 2006.

Details of the case over which the defence minister has refused to confirm the sentence of the court martial are not yet available. The confusion arises because the decisions of the courts martial were not announced in chronological order.

For instance, two death sentences were related to incidents that had taken place on October 28 and October 31, 2006. But the first sentence was delivered in the October 31 case.

The files of the cases have been with Antony since the orders moved up from the Northern Command to Army Headquarters and to the government. The defence minister is the arbiter for the government in all death sentences given by military courts martial.

Antony was hoping he would not have to sit in judgement over such a sensitive issue. But the delay in the constitution of the Armed Forces Tribunal, to settle disputes in the services, compelled him to take a stand.

The government will be guided by the defence minister’s advice on confirming sentences given by the courts martial. The soldiers sentenced to death have the right to appeal in civil courts only after the government endorses, or denies confirmation of, court martial verdicts. In the present case, the government has refused to confirm the death sentence.

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