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Days from an execution, India faces questions over death penalty

India's Supreme Court said Friday that it would hear a last-ditch appeal by a death-row prisoner whose case has renewed questions about capital punishment in the world's second-most populous nation.

The court said it would hear arguments for clemency Monday in the case of Yakub Memon, who is scheduled to be hanged Thursday in connection with a series of bombings that killed hundreds of people in Mumbai, India's financial capital, two decades ago.

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Indian authorities say Memon, now 53, assisted the two masterminds of the blasts, who are believed to be hiding in neighboring Pakistan.

An accountant, Memon was convicted of handling finances for the 1993 attack, in which 13 bombs exploded across the city then known as Bombay, killing 257 people and wounding more than 700.

Critics say that Memon, the only person sentenced to death for the bombings, is being made a scapegoat because Indian authorities have been unable to nab the two suspected masterminds: Memon's older brother, Mushtaq "Tiger" Memon, and Dawood Ibrahim.

Ten men convicted of planting the bombs in the Bombay Stock Exchange, luxury hotels, bazaars and other busy areas had their death sentences commuted to life in prison when the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that they were pawns of the main conspirators.

Hanging Memon "will only give the impression that the lone man available among the many brains behind the ghastly act of terrorism is being singled out," The Hindu newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Memon, who fled to Pakistan with his family before the attacks, was arrested in 1994. While Indian authorities said he was captured in New Delhi, Memon said he turned himself in to prove his innocence.

While in custody, Memon reportedly persuaded six family members to return to India from Pakistan to face charges. Three were sentenced to prison for aiding the conspirators.

Memon also supplied investigators with what they said was evidence of Pakistan's involvement in the attack, including the names of Pakistani officials who furnished the Memons with travel documents and watched over them in the port city of Karachi. Pakistan denies involvement in the attacks.

"He has been in jail for 20 years and has given the courts some vital information," said Abha Singh, a senior lawyer and activist. "Now if we hang him … the international community will never be in favor of extraditing any terrorist to India."

The bombings were said to be in retaliation for communal bloodletting that began months earlier after Hindu extremists destroyed a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya. Hundreds of people, both Hindus and Muslims, died in riots in Mumbai and other cities.

Memon's case also has raised accusations that India is quicker to apply the death penalty in terrorism cases, particularly when Muslims are involved.

India did not carry out any executions for nearly a decade until November 2012, when Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving assailant in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, was hanged in secret. Months later, Mohammed Afzal Guru, convicted for an attack on the Indian parliament a decade earlier, was also executed.

Four members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger rebels who were convicted in the 1991 assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had their death sentences reduced to life in prison after pressure from political parties in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim lawmaker, said Friday that Memon was being hanged because he was Muslim. A lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close ties to Hindu nationalist groups, responded that those who don't respect the Indian judiciary can "go to Pakistan."

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National Law University in New Delhi recently reported that of several hundred Indians on death row, about three-quarters belonged to religious minorities and underprivileged castes.

Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, said the death penalty was beginning to resemble "a whimsical lottery" biased against Muslims.

"Heinous criminals get away with barbaric crimes, terrorists who are politically convenient are given the benefit of doubt, but to make up for it, peripheral players in Islamist terrorist conspiracies feel the full might of the law," Joshi wrote on the Wire, an online news site.

Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.

For more news from India and South Asia, follow @SBengali on Twitter

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