India puts Sikh radical Rajoana's execution on hold

Balwant Singh Rajoana (Photo: Rajesh Sachar) Rajoana's pending execution has stirred controversy in India (Photo: Rajesh Sachar)

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India has put on hold the execution of a prisoner, sentenced to death for his role in the 1995 murder of Punjab state's Chief Minister Beant Singh.

Balwant Singh Rajoana's hanging, which had been set for Saturday, was postponed after a mercy petition to the president, the Home Ministry said.

Several opposition parties and Sikh groups had called a strike demanding a halt to the impending execution.

If carried out, the execution would be the first in India since 2004.

Rajoana, who was sentenced in 2007, has not appealed against the sentence, although other convicted co-conspirators have had their death sentences reduced on appeal.

Tight security

The Press Trust of India news agency said the hanging had been stayed following a mercy petition by top Sikh religious body the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) to President Pratibha Patil.

PTI quoted a letter from the Home Ministry to the Punjab government detailing the reasons for the stay of execution, describing the postponement as procedural to allow petitions for mercy to be decided on.

The Home Ministry order came after Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal met President Patil to seek clemency for Rajoana.

Meanwhile, security has been tightened across the state with paramilitary troops carrying out marches across various town and cities to ensure peace.

Patiala Central Jail, where Rajoana is being held, has been turned into a fortress and all roads leading to the prison have been barricaded.

On Tuesday, the superintendent of Patiala Central Jail, Lakhwinder Singh Jakhar, told the court that he was unable to carry out the sentence because a mercy petition for Rajoana and another man convicted in the case were before the president.

The family of Beant Singh has also said it had forgiven Rajoana and would like his death penalty commuted to life in prison.

Only India's president or the Supreme Court can stop an execution.

Rajoana's impending execution has provoked protests outside India in the Sikh diaspora, with demonstrations planned in the UK cities of Birmingham and London.

Beant Singh was killed on 31 August along with 17 others by a suicide bomber identified as Dilawar Singh. Rajoana was convicted of acting as a back-up suicide bomber should Singh have failed.

Executions are rare in India where hundreds of convicts are awaiting the death penalty, including the killers of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The sole surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Pakistani national Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, is also on death row. The Supreme Court has stayed Qasab's execution while an appeal is considered.

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