ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In India, the law says people should only be sentenced to death in the rarest of rare cases. But right now, a Muslim man named Mohammed Afzal Guru faces the gallows after being convicted of playing a role in the deadly attack on India's parliament in late 2001. His case is generating deep controversy.

And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, it has also triggered an unprecedented debate on capitol punishment in a country that has been hit by a series of terrorist attacks.

PHILIP REEVES: In a cavernous conference hall, a crowd gathers to remember the victims of a wave of bombings. They listen to speeches. A tiny girl sings a patriotic song. They weep and wave small Indian national flags made out of paper. There were 59 dead in all. They were killed by three bombs in New Delhi one year ago. It wasn't the first such attack.

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Unidentified Woman: Bangalore changed on 28 December 2005 with the attack on the Indian institute of science. The police are yet to trace the terrorist who carried out the attack.

REEVES: Such assaults and their aftermaths are a regular subject for India's TV news channels. Over the last year, militants have bomber New Delhi, Varanasi, Maligao(sp) and then in July, India's commercial capital, Mumbai. Nearly 200 people were killed by seven blasts on Mumbai's trains. The wave of public anger was followed by a debate about how to respond.

Mr. AJAY SAHNI (Institute for Conflict Management): So what you're seeing right now is a polarization. There are those who are passionately advocating the death penalty and others who are equally passionately advocating the evolution of the death penalty.

REEVES: That's Ajay Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.

SAHNI: There are very few who will stand and would actually look at the broader issues and say we should this man be punished, what will it do to terrorism?

REEVES: The debate's being driven by one case above all others. Muhammad Afzal is form the Indian controlled and predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley. He was due to be hanged on the 20th of October. This was postponed after his wife filed a plea for clemency to India's president, who's now considering it. Afzal stands convicted of an indirect role in the attack on India's Parliament five years ago.

Fourteen people died in that attack, including five still unnamed militants who carried it out. India blamed militant groups backed by Pakistan and mobilized its army along the border. For a while the two countries, which both have nuclear arsenals, were close to war. But only four people were ever arrested for the Parliament attack. Of them, two were eventually acquitted. Afzal is the only one facing death.

Ms. ARUNDHATI ROY: It was a political trial and it is a political sentence.

REEVES: Arundhati Roy, activist and internationally acclaimed author, is among those concerned about Afzal's conviction. Though it upheld the death penalty, India's supreme court has said there's no proof Afzal was a member of a terrorist group. Starting procedurals lapses, it also set aside a confession, which the priest said Afzal made in custody.

Roy's read all the court documents. She says she found the evidence against Afzal contains serious inconsistencies. And now she's raising fundamental questions about the case.

Ms. ROY: Have he committed a heinous crime? What was the extent of his involvement? Who actually attacked Parliament?

REEVES: She's not alone. It's election season for student officers at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the most politically active campuses in India. Kavita Krishnun(sp) is campaigning for a leftist party, the AIFA.

Ms. KAVITA KRISHNUN: We will tell each and every student that it is a matter for you and me to fight for keeping democratic, that will mean that we cannot allow the right to kill in the hands of bias authorities. If Afzal were to be hanged, it will be a shame for India and we would all have to come out on the streets to fight it.

REEVES: Yet, after so many attacks, India is in the hard line mood. Opinion poll suggests the great majority of Indians want Afzal to die. This include Krishnun's political opponents on campus. BJ Kumar(ph) is from a Hindu nationalist group, the ABVP.

Mr. BJ KUMAR: This crime has given sentence of death and Afzal must be hanged because it is one of the rarest of rare cases and Afzal have been found guilty.

REEVES: The debates reached the streets. In Indian controlled Kashmir, there had been violent protests in support of Afzal. Yet in New Delhi, the Hindu nationalist opposition party, the BJP, has hanged Afzal in effigy and held demonstrations demanding his immediate execution. BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar doesn't believe Afzal was convicted on floored evidence.

Mr. PRAKASH JAVADEKAR (BJP Spokesman): That is (unintelligible). The case was heard by local court, the high court and the supreme court.

REEVES: Ajay Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management says India's authorities now face a dilemma.

Mr. SAHNI: If he hangs, he becomes a martyr and will be exploited as a symbol by the insurgents.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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