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LONG GAP

If one striking feature of the December 2001 Parliament attack case were to be highlighted, most would agree that it was the speed with which four people were arrested, investigated and taken before the court. By December 2002, Afzal Guru and two more accused had been sentenced to death by a special court. By Indian standards, this was very fast on the part of the justice system. As the appeals followed through the Delhi High Court to the Supreme Court, from 2003 to 2005, Afzal Guruís conviction was repeatedly upheld while one of the accused was acquitted and the otherís sentence was commuted to 10 years. But the pace had already slowed. And then, with a mercy petition filed with the president of India in 2006, everything stalled. As a man, sentenced to death in 2002, waited and the Supreme Court and the government dismissed the mercy petition, the years began to roll by. Indiaís slow justice system felt the need to earn its reputation.

This case, because of its nature and its target, illustrates especially clearly how a slow justice system can be damaging on multiple levels. Whatever the debate over capital punishment, even proponents of it would agree that no one has the right to give a person on death row false hope. It is impossible that the delay would not have made the convict and his family hopeful. Delay also raises questions about the lawís certitude, reopens controversies regarding evidence and fairness, and makes tardiness look like hesitation. In short, people begin to suspect whether justice has been served at all. Such delay is divisive and harmful. But it is not just the effects of delay that are laid bare. The process of justice around Afzal Guru, from 2001 to 2013, also exposes some of the reasons that slow it down. The chief among these ó or one of the main reasons ó is the political tussle that takes place, often obliquely, behind the scenes around every high-profile case, perhaps more so in cases of terrorism. The anxiety to throw the ball into a rivalís court and then to browbeat the rival morally and politically into picking it up is a syndrome that affects every political party. This, however illegitimately, affects the justice system, slowing it down as careful moves are made ó or not made ó so that action can only be taken after judiciously measuring the outcome of either action or further delay. Maybe the justice system can work much faster without such complications.