Executioner's return

Saturday, August 14, 2004

CALCUTTA, India -- A man convicted of raping and murdering a teenage girl was hanged at dawn today in this Indian city, the first execution in nine years in a country where the death penalty is reserved for "the rarest of rare cases."

Dhananjaya Chatterjee, 39, was executed at 4:30 a.m.

He walked out of Cell No. 3 at the Alipora Correctional Home, where he has spent the last 13 years in solitary confinement, and walked down a concrete path to the wooden gallows.

An 84-year-old hangman brought out of retirement carried out the execution, helped by his son and grandson.

Earlier at the prison, about 70 protesters had gathered at 2 a.m., lit candles and held anti-death penalty banners. At the time of the hanging, they were silent for a moment, and then left.

Chatterjee was convicted of raping and suffocating Hetal Parekh, 14, who lived in a Calcutta apartment building where he worked as a security guard. He was arrested in 1990 and transferred to the solitary confinement death row cell after his conviction in 1991.

Chatterjee and his family maintained his innocence, and lawyers filed appeals twice to the Supreme Court and sought clemency from two Indian presidents. President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam turned down the final plea last week, and the Supreme Court nixed an appeal Thursday.

The executioner, Nata Mullick, also carried out the last hanging in West Bengal state in 1991, when two men were executed for killing four members of a family. The last execution in all of India was in 1995, when an auto-rickshaw driver convicted in the serial murders of prostitutes was hanged in southern Tamil Nadu state.

No one at the Alipora prison remembered the last time the gallows were used, so the iron lever and footboard had to be tested repeatedly and the rope waxed with soap and ripe bananas, Mullick said before the execution. He carried out several trial hangings with sandbags weighing the same as Chatterjee.

"Criminals like Chatterjee ought to be hanged so that others don't commit such crimes," said the third-generation hangman, running his fingers through his shiny silver hair. "I'm only making society safer."

His fee for the hanging: $435 and a post for his grandson as a maintenance worker at the jail for $56 a month.

India's Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the death penalty should be imposed only in "the rarest of rare cases." Although several convicts have been sentenced to death in the past decade, none have been executed, because of appeals pending before higher courts or because they have won clemency.

Some human rights groups and intellectuals in West Bengal state, of which Calcutta is the capital, had objected to Chatterjee's scheduled execution, but there was no groundswell of opinion in his favor.

On Friday, a group of 30 people from the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights marched silently in front of the jail where Chatterjee was incarcerated. They waived placards reading "Abolish capital punishment" and "Death for death is state-sponsored terrorism."

The case also raised objections from human rights groups and intellectuals in West Bengal state. The European Union asked India on June 23 to abolish capital punishment.

Chatterjee's conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. He fled and the victim's watch was found in his native village. Witnesses testified they saw him on the day of the murder go up to the apartment where Hetal lived, after school when her parents were away.

No DNA testing was available in India in 1991, but when it became possible later to do such tests, courts rejected the petition of Chatterjee's lawyers.

"The president has been unfair and unjust in rejecting my son's appeal," Chatterjee's 78-year-old father, Banshidhar Chatterjee, told reporters this week. "I don't understand how the president could do this to a poor man's son."

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