Calcutta, April 27: Aftab Ansari and six others were today sentenced to death in connection with the terror attack on the American Center here three years ago. This was the second largest number of death sentences ever handed in a single case anywhere in the country.
After Basudeb Majumdar, the 12th judge of the city civil and sessions court, read out the sentence for 'waging war against the nation', Aftab said: 'Aapka shukr hai ki aapne aaj hi bata diya (I am grateful that you have passed the sentence today itself).'
On a murky winter morning on January 22, 2002, two assassins on a motorcycle opened fire on policemen during the changing of guard in front of the American Center in central Calcutta, killing five.
'Thank God, justice has been delivered,' said Rupali, widow of Anup Mondal, one of the dead policemen.
The sentence was delivered after some six hours of wait since the session began inside Presidency jail around 10.45 in the morning.
Only in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case was a higher number of death sentences, 26, given.
The alleged mastermind, Aftab, 31, and the other six ' Jamiluddin Nasir, Musarat Hussain, Shakir Akhtar, Hasrat Alam, Adil Hassan and Rehan Alam alias Montil ' have decided to move the high court challenging the order.
If the high court upholds the sentence, they can go to the Supreme Court and finally to the President seeking pardon.
'This is an unprecedented judgment where a judge has slapped death sentence riding the provisions of the Arms Act without even having a look at the particular weapon that was used to kill five persons,' said Sayed Shahid Imam, Aftab's advocate.
Imam also questioned why the judge took so long to pass the sentence and wondered if he had acted under government pressure. 'It has never happened that a judge has left his court before pronouncing the sentence. We are not sure where he went,' Imam said.
Around 10.30, Majumdar arrived in a white ambassador in Presidency jail and 15 minutes later, took his seat in the small room that was converted into a court. Minutes later, the convicts were brought in, one by one, with Aftab, in black trousers and a white T-shirt with a black border around the sleeves, in the lead.
The collapsible gate leading to the flight of steps reaching the courtroom was drawn with a sharp crank. Inside the room feet shuffled, officers took their position and relatives of the convicts sat up as the judge asked each of the seven to speak on the conviction pronounced yesterday.
Aftab, who was deported from Dubai to stand trial, spoke first. 'Aap jo achcha sochein, wohi kijiye (You do whatever you think best),' he said in a sharp, clear voice. The others repeated the line.
Their lawyers requested the judge for copies of the judgment to be delivered to them today, which is the rule. But the delay began as the verdict was 280 pages long and there was no place inside the jail where it could be copied.
The judgment was taken to the city civil court a few kilometres away and the copying began. Around 2 pm, Majumdar himself left the jail for the city civil court to check on the progress of the copying and had his lunch there.
The copies ' eight sets ' arrived in the courtroom around 4.30 and some 15 minutes later the sentence was delivered.
Aftab and the six others' lawyers used the period of absence of the judge from the jailhouse courtroom to level allegations of government influencing the verdict. 'Too much is being read into the judge's movements,' said public prosecutor Ashok Bakshi.
When Majumdar left, the crowds outside had thinned and the lights had come up at Presidency jail. Aftab had returned to cell number 9.
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