With the pardoning of two convicts by Indian President Pratibha Patil, who commuted their death sentences into life imprisonment, the spotlight is now resolutely fixed upon the impending fate of Mohammad Afzal, also known as Afzal Guru, whose mercy petition is pending before the head of the Indian Union. Guru was among the four accused charged by the Indian government with collaborating with five unidentified attackers, who targeted the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, and were killed to the last man. Within days of the incident, the Indian armed forces started mobilising for war and the ensuing months saw armies of both countries in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in a hair-trigger standoff. It was only after 10 months that the Indians called it a field day. Interesting it is to note that the special court, the first tier of judicial hierarchy, that found a quartet of accused guilty, only did so in December 2002 when the demobilisation of troops was nearing completion after sustaining a year long trauma of an imminent war. Even as he turns out to be the ultimate fall guy, Afzal never fired a bullet on the Indian Parliament. He along with his cousin Shaukat Hussain Guru, who was a fruit vendor, his wife Afsan Guru and S.A.R. Geelani, who was a lecturer of Arabic in a Delhi College, were charged with conspiracy and of assisting the five attackers, who stormed the Parliament. The special court headed by Judge N. Dhingra, better known through the sobriquet of the 'hanging judge, at the primary level of the Indian judicial hierarchy, sentenced the three men to death, while Afsan was given five years rigorous imprisonment. On appeal, the High Court acquitted Geelani and Afsan; retaining the death punishment for the remaining two accused. Afzal and Shaukat appealed against the High Courts verdict to the Supreme Court, which announced its decision on August 4, 2005. It upheld the death sentence handed to Afzal, while lifting the death penalty on Shaukat; giving him 10 years in prison. Afzal finally exhausted his last option for vindicating his innocence when the Supreme Court rejected his final plea in January 2007, leaving him to the mercy of the Indian President who alone, in exercise of his discretionary powers, can now save his life. At the end of the day, Afzal Guru stands out as the lone figure bearing the responsibility for bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of a nuclear conflagration. For Pakistan, it may be a matter of satisfaction, though, that with the case of attack on the Indian Parliament having run its full judicial course, there is no inference to its involvement in the episode; no reference to the thesis of cross border terrorism that has remained a driver of the Indian policy vis--vis Pakistan for the last decade or so. The most tragic aspect about Afzals death sentence is that the legal dice was always loaded against him; he never got a fair chance to prove his innocence before the court and the Indian state never cared to address the malady. The crucial period between his arrest on December 15, 2001, and the filing of the charge sheet on May 14, 2005, saw him without any legal representation. According to Tabassum, Afzals wife: The court appointed a lawyer, who never took instructions from Afzal, or cross-examined the prosecution witnesses. That lawyer was communal and showed his hatred for my husband. When my husband told the judge that he did not want that lawyer the judge ignored him. As the case progressed through higher courts, the practice continued, even degenerated to become more damaging. According to Arundhiti Roy, leading a campaign to spare his life, Afzal had no legal defence, no legal advice, no top lawyer, no defence committee in India and Kashmir and no companion. She said that of all the four accused he was the most vulnerable and as a surrendered militant his vulnerability was exploited to the hilt. The evidence to frame Afzal was fabricated and presented before the courts by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, which is notorious for conducting fake arrests and encounters. With connivance and full support from all organs of the state, it was ensured that Afzals confessional statement, drawn under duress and blackmail of holding his family as ransom, fitted perfectly well with the evidence that the police had already fabricated. In view of the fact that the three other co-accused - Geelani, Shaukat and Afsan - escaped the noose on account of unsustainable evidence how can it be believed that the evidence leading to Afzals conviction was not wilfully doctored? A fall guy had to be found to justify the yearlong deployment of a million strong Indian army on Pakistans borders; incurring a cost of Rs1 billion and a loss of 800 lives. Afzal happened to be that unfortunate man, who was picked up to justify such a rash venture with his life on the block. The death sentence to Afzal has turned into a political quicksand for India where the Kashmiri population strongly believes in the innocence of Afzal. A sharp backlash is also expected to materialise among Indias Muslim population in case he is led to the gallows. While the decision on Afzals fate will enable India to formally close the case of the attack on the Indian Parliament, vital questions remain answered. The most poignant of these is: If Pakistans role in the attack has been ruled out through judicial findings, then who was behind the attack on Parliament on that fateful December morning in 2001? One wishes Afzal luck, as the Indian President mulls over his fate to close the Parliament Attack episode; a tragic figure, which in the grip of forces and circumstances beyond his control, may have to pay with his life to justify a charade that set the subcontinent rolling on the road to a nuclear conflagration. n The writer is a freelance columnist.