An Indian appeals court Wednesday overturned the conviction of a Muslim professor who had been sentenced to die as a conspirator in the December 2001 terrorist attack on India's Parliament. The attack, for which India blamed neighboring Pakistan, almost drove the nuclear rivals to war.
Prof. Syed Abdul Geelani and three other defendants had been convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which grants broad powers to police and prosecutors and which critics say tramples the rights of the accused.
The Delhi High Court verdict came as India is reassessing the terrorism law and adding measures meant to safeguard defendants from abuse. There are complaints that federal and state governments have wrongly used the law against common criminals, political opponents, journalists, and even children.
"Indian justice has redeemed itself,'' says Ram Jethmalani, Mr. Geelani's lawyer. Geelani, a lecturer at Delhi University, had been sentenced to the gallows on the basis of a brief cellphone conversation in which, prosecutors said, he showed knowledge of and approval for the attack.
The high court said the conversation wasn't sufficient to convict him.
"The evidence turned out to be useless,'' Mr. Jethmalani says. "It established his innocence rather than his guilt.''
Generally speaking, India's debate over POTA is similar to concerns in the United States over the USA Patriot Act. Both laws give the government broad powers to investigate and interrogate suspects.
In India, the law for the first time makes jailhouse confessions admissible as evidence. In nonterrorism cases, such confessions are not admissible because they are assumed to be the product of torture. Wiretaps and transcripts of phone conversations are also admissible, and bail is all but impossible.
"This was a test case for POTA with its draconian provisions, which hold that we must deviate from the norms of justice to fight terrorism,'' says attorney Nitya Ramakrishnan, whose client, Navjot Sandhu, was ordered freed. "The verdict shows a lack of accountability, a lack of conscience'' by the authorities.
Ms. Sandhu had been sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly concealing her husband's role in the conspiracy. The high court upheld the death sentences handed to her husband, Shaukat Hussain, and another man, Mohammad Afzai, for their roles in the conspiracy.
Prosecutor Gopal Subramanian says he can't comment until he reads the decision. "I have not yet observed the wording,'' he says.
The Dec. 13, 2001, assault on India's Parliament is seen as India's Sept. 11. Five attackers stormed the walled Parliament complex and killed nine people before they were gunned down. India blamed Pakistan-backed militants for the attack, which Pakistan denied, and more than a million soldiers were massed at the border.
None of the four defendants was present at the attack. Instead they were linked to it through intercepted mobile-phone conversations and by confessions they claimed were the result of police torture. Police deny those charges.
Human rights advocates say the trial, most notably Geelani's conviction, was rife with procedural errors, fabricated evidence, and capriciousness by the judge.
"It throws open all these questions,'' Ms. Ramakrishnan says. "A trial court sentences a man to death after tying both hands behind his back, and the high court acquits him.''
Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review, says the verdict "does not reflect on the validity of the law or the necessity for the law." He says POTA is one of the weakest antiterrorism laws in the world, but seeks to adapt the antiquated Indian penal code to the challenges of terrorism.
"Most of what would be evidence in the West would not be evidence here," he says.
Almost every Indian state government has been accused of misusing the terrorism law.
In the state of Jharkhand, a 13-year-old boy and an 81-year-old man were charged as terrorists during a February round up of 200 suspected Maoist rebels and their supporters.
In Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister Jayalalitha has charged a political opponent, who is also a junior member of the federal cabinet, under the law for allegedly speaking in favor of Tamil separatists.
On Monday, Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam added new sections to the terrorism law that give review committees the power to quash unfair prosecutions. Now the committees have the power to "review whether there is a prima facie case for proceeding against the accused under this act and issue directions accordingly.''