On February 18, the 12-year-old son of Shabnam Ali, a death row convict, appealed to President Ram Nath Kovind to ‘forgive’ his mother. If the mercy plea goes unanswered, she will be the first woman in independent India to face the gallows.
The Mathura district jail is the only Indian prison that has provisions to hang a female convict. It was almost 150 years ago that the first female hanging house was built here, but it remained unused since Independence. Media outlets reveal that Pawan Kumar, the hangman in the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, had visited Mathura jail to inspect the hanging room.
So, who is Shabnam Ali, and why is she being hanged? Here’s all you need to know.
Who is Shabnam Ali?
Shabnam Ali, who belongs to the Saifi Muslim community, hails from Bawankheri, a village in the outskirts of Amroha. With a double MA in English and Geography, she was a teacher in the village school before being charged for murder of seven of her family members in 2008.
Shabnam and Saleem sedated the family members
Shabnam’s family was against her relationship with Saleem because of the difference in their socio-economic backgrounds. Her familywere well-to-do landlords while Saleem, belonging to the Pathan community, was a daily wager.
Hurt by the family’s reactions, the couple brutally murdered Shabnam’s father Shaukat Ali (55), mother Hashmi (50), elder brother Anees (35), Anees’s wife Anjum (25), younger brother Rashid (22), cousin Rabia (14), and Arsh (10), Anees’s son.
Shabnam and Saleem sedated all the family members, except Arsh. Their heads were chopped off, while Arsh was throttled to death.
At this point, Shabnam was seven weeks pregnant with Saleem’s child. In December 2008, she gave birth to her son.
The trial: What Shabnam claimed
It was during the course of the trial that the couple turned against each other. Shabnam had claimed that she had informed about her family’s murder. According to her initial version, unknown assailants had barged into her house and killed her family.
In 2015, Shabnam in her statement had said that Saleem had entered her house with a knife and killed all her family members, while she was fast asleep. Saleem, on the other hand, confessed to entering the house only upon Shabnam’s request, and that when he had reached there, she confessed to having murdered her family already.
India’s female death row convict to be hanged
Both Shabnam and Saleem were sentenced to death by an Amroha sessions court, which was upheld by the Allahabad High Court in 2013, and later the Supreme Court in May 2015. In a span of 10 days, the SC stayed the death warrants.
In September 2015, Shabnam’s mercy plea was rejected by the then governor of Uttar Pradesh, Ram Naik. In August 2016, the then President Pranab Mukherjee also rejected her mercy petition.
It was in January 2020 that an SC bench led by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde upheld the death sentence.
She has not yet exhausted her legal remedies.
Shabnam will be hanged at Mathura jail
Although Shabnam has not yet received a death warrant, media reports reveal that preparations are underway at Mathura jail to execute her. As the hanging house for women has not been used since independent India, the structure of the gallows is being fixed, and two hanging ropes have been ordered from Bihar’s Buxar central jail.
Currently, Shabnam is lodged at Rampur jail.
“Shabnam could still seek another judicial review of the petition in SC. She could also file a curative petition,” SC lawyer Sarthak Chaturvedi told the media. “No one can be hanged until all the legal remedies are over.”
“The Shabnam you hear of, the woman on death row, is not the Shabnam I know. We went to the same college… She once paid my college fee when I couldn’t, she would help me with my notes and stand up for me in college. All this, just like an elder sister would. So when this happened, I was shocked. I told my wife that I owe a lot to Shabnam and must do this for her.”
Shabnam’s friend adopts her child
Shabnam’s son was born in jail and stayed with her until 2015. As women inmates are not permitted to keep children above six with them, he was sent to foster care. He is being taken care of by journalist Usman Saifi, Shabnam’s junior in college, and his wife Suhina.
Saifi had told the media in 2015, “The Shabnam you hear of, the woman on death row, is not the Shabnam I know. We went to the same college… She once paid my college fee when I couldn’t, she would help me with my notes and stand up for me in college. All this, just like an elder sister would. So when this happened, I was shocked. I told my wife that I owe a lot to Shabnam and must do this for her.”
Other women on death row in India
There are 12 women on death row in India, according to a 2016 report on the death penalty in India released by National Law University. In the past, the mercy pleas by step-sisters Renuka Shinde and Seema Mohan Gavit were rejected by the President. The sisters were charged with kidnapping and killing several children in Maharashtra between 1990 and 1996.
Another convict, Ramshri was sentenced to death in 1998, but she gave birth to a child in prison, after which her death warrant was commuted to life imprisonment.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)