NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Yakub Memon's last hope of avoiding the hangman's noose for his role in the 1993 Mumbai bombings was dashed on Wednesday, after India's Supreme Court threw out his final plea for mercy hours before he was due to be executed.
Memon could go to the gallows before 7 a.m. on Thursday, his 53rd birthday, for his role as the "driving spirit" in a series of bombings that killed at least 257 people.
The case has aroused controversy because police considered Memon's brother, "Tiger" Memon, and mafia don Dawood Ibrahim to be the masterminds behind attacks designed to avenge the destruction of an ancient mosque by Hindu zealots in 1992.
Both men remain in hiding.
While the public backs Memon's execution, several lawmakers and retired judges have come out in his support, saying the sentence is too harsh in light of the help he gave investigators in cracking India's deadliest bomb attack case.
Calls for reprieve grew after a website last week released a 2007 article by intelligence official B. Raman, who coordinated Memon's arrest in 1994, saying the prosecution had failed to highlight mitigating circumstances in its eagerness to secure a death penalty. Raman has since died.
A three-judge Supreme Court panel rejected Memon's 11th-hour petition, clearing the last judicial barrier to his execution, due to be carried out in a jail in the western city of Nagpur.
"The issuance of death warrant is not illegal and thereby we don't find any merit in the convict's petition," the panel said, dismissing Memon's petition before a packed courtroom.
Memon's lawyer, Raju Ramachandran, urged the court to commute his client's punishment to life imprisonment, saying he suffered from schizophrenia. Ramachandran declined to comment after the hearing.
The governor of the western state of Maharashtra, whose capital at the time of the bombings was still called Bombay, rejected an appeal for mercy, as did President Pranab Mukherjee late on Wednesday evening, according to TV reports.
The rights group Amnesty International, which campaigns against the death penalty, has previously called the rejection of Memon's appeal a disappointing step backwards.
"The death penalty in India is arbitrary, discriminatory and is often used disproportionately against the poor," it said in a statement.
India was for decades reluctant to carry out death sentences, but in 2012 voted against a U.N. draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.
In November 2012, India executed a militant convicted for a 2008 attack by militant gunmen on Mumbai's landmark Taj Hotel and other targets in which 166 people died, ending what many had seen as an undeclared moratorium on capital punishment.
Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta in Mumbai; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Kevin Liffey