World Day Against Death Penalty: India needs to abolish capital punishment

In India, delays in judicial processes and trial, long waiting periods, make the death sentence ineffective and inhuman for everyone involved.

109 death sentences were given by Indian courts in 2017 and none were executed. Waiting to die while under sentence comes with its own complications. According to Amnesty International’s 2017 annual report, at least 21,919 people were known to be under a sentence of death worldwide at the end of 2017. The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide estimates the number of people sentenced to death around the world to be slightly less than 40 000. 
“107 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes while seven countries have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes. 28 countries are abolitionist in practice and 56 countries are retentionist. 23 countries carried out executions in 2017. In 2017, the top five executioners were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan,” a report by World Coalition against Death Penalty said.
In India, delays in judicial processes and trial, long waiting periods, make the death sentence ineffective and inhuman. On World Day Against Death Penalty, which is observed on Oct 10 every year, India needs to examine its stance on serving death penalties.
Evidence suggests that death penalties don’t work. They do not deter crimes and cause a horde of humanitarian problems for everyone involved, right from the accused, his/her family, the prison staff, the lawyers representing the accused and more.
In India, death row prisoners spend a very long time in prison. While the median time on death row is 10 years and 5 months, some prisoners have spent more than 25 years locked in a cell. Navinder Sing spent more than 25 years on death row, only to see his pardon application rejected by the Indian Supreme Court after 10 years of trial.
Such cases have become the norm.
“There were 371 prisoners on the death row in India by end December 2017 with the oldest case from 1991, 27 years ago, according to the Death Penalty in India report published in January 2018. The number of death sentences also fell. In 2017, 109 were sentenced to death by sessions courts across states, down 27% from 149 in 2016, said the report published by the Centre on the Death Penalty, an advocacy,” a report said.
One Indian judge noted as much about prisoners subject to solitary while awaiting death: “[the prisoner] must, by now, be more a vegetable than a person and hanging a vegetable is not [the] death penalty.”
At present day, the psychological studies only confirm that solitary confinement, similar to what is faced by many prisoners on death row, drives people mad. Indeed, clinical studies have shown that the existence of “death row syndrome” is partly due to four mental disorders: feelings of helplessness and defeat, feelings of diffuse danger, emotional emptiness and loneliness, and declining mental and physical acuity.
Although people on death row are entitled to the same basic rights and treatment conditions as other categories of prisoners, as set out in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela rules), many testimonies document the inhumane living conditions that people sentenced to death endure.
Capital punishment finds mass acceptance in India
2015 was the last time a death sentence was carried out in India when Yakub Memon, the accused in 1993 blast case was hanged. Overall, there were 371 people on death row in India in 2017.
India’s Cabinet approved the introduction of the death penalty in the penal code for those who rape children under the age of 12. Many serious crimes still carry capital punishment but raping a child was not included in them until April 2018. Nearly 19,000 cases of child sexual abuse and rape were registered in India in 2016, more than 50 each day which prompted the state govt to make its stands clear to the masses.
Executions are rarely carried out in India with only three recorded in the last decade as reported by BBC.
Last year, 51 death penalties were imposed for murder alone, down from 87 in 2016, the London-based organisation said quoting the National Law University’s Centre on Death Penalty.
Between 2000 and 2012, Indian courts passed 1,677 sentences of death, according to NCRB data. During 2004-12, convictions were recorded in 1,80,439 cases involving murder. In the same period, death sentences were passed in 1,178 murder cases, that is, in 0.65% of cases involving murder convictions, a report said.
Historical Blunder
“In 1931, an attempt was made to introduce in the Central Legislative Assembly (which came into existence after the elections of September 1930) a Bill to abolish the death penalty for offences under the Indian Penal Code by Babu Gaya Prasad Singh, an elected member from Bihar. The motion for circulation was defeated, and days later, on March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged. Later that year, at its session in Karachi, the Congress moved a resolution demanding the abolition of the death penalty,” reported Indian Express.
Minorities worst affected
Dr. B Karthik Navayan, discussed how caste and communal dimensions decide the death penalty in India. He spoke about it in a speech at a meeting organised by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Alternative Law Forum (ALF) in Bangalore on July 28, 2018.
“Caste is bad and death penalty is bad. Then who are at the receiving end of these both these bad things? Certainly, it is Dalits, Bahujan, Adivasis and religious minorities. All so-called lower castes – those who are lower than the Brahmins in the notional order of caste hierarchy. These social groups are targeted and awarded death sentence. Death sentence as it exists in the law books will disproportionately affect the individuals from marginalized communities, particularity the Scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward castes and religious minorities. When I say religious minorities, it means the so-called lower castes of those minority religions,” he said.
Referring to two incidents that happened in the span of two years, the death penalty and trial spoke volumes on how minorities get treated by the justice system.
“One way to prove this is to look at numbers – the numbers of death sentences awarded, and number of number of executions, and the caste, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds of the people who are sent to the hangman. Some studies in this regard proved that the people who are awarded death sentences come are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said.
“I would like to examine the conduct of the justice system in the context of two such cases – one is the Tsunduru massacre of Dalits, where eight Dalits, seven Malas and one Madiga were chased and brutally murdered by Reddy caste people on 6 August 1991. Another is the Chilakaluripeta bus burning case, where two Dalit youth, Ghantela Vijayavardhana Rao and Sathuluru Chalapathi Rao burnt a public transport bus and caused the death of 23 people in an attempt to commit theft, on 8 March 1993,” he said.
“The massacre on Tsunduru happened in 1991, the charge sheet was filed against the 219 accused, and the trial started in 2004, and the Special Court delivered its judgment in 2007, convicting 21 culprits for life sentence, 35 culprits for 1-year sentence and released the rest of the culprits,” he said.
“In Chilakaluripeta bus burning case, the two Dalit youth who caused death of 23 people by setting a burning a bus on fire were sentenced to death. See the timeline here. The bus-burning incident happened in 1993. Trial started immediately and they were sentenced to death in 1995 by the District Court. The death sentence was confirmed by the High Court and Supreme Court in 1997 and their mercy petition also rejected by the then President of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1997 itself. Is this not an example of so quick – speedy delivery of death to Dalits?” he said.
“In all the above brutal and rarest of rare cases of Dalit massacres, the death sentence was given to the culprits only in two cases – Laxmanpur Bathe and Khairlanji. However, it was commuted to life immediately by the higher courts. No execution of death sentence when Dalits are massacred: this reveals the Brahmanical casteism of the judiciary. The death sentence as it exists in law books will be used only against Dalits and other marginalised communities, the death sentence is a crime against humanity, it has to be removed from the law books altogether,” he said.
World’s top executioners
Amnesty International Senior Director for Law and Policy Tawanda Mutasah told reporters that China remained the world’s top executioner in 2018 with death penalties running into thousands. The exact number of China’s executions was not known because it is considered a state secret, he said.
Iran came next with at least 507 executions and it was followed by Saudi Arabia with 146, Iraq with more than 125, and Pakistan with more than 60.
In the America’s, only the US carried out the death penalty, executing 23 people last year.
“The death penalty continued in the USA to be used in ways that contravened international law and standards, including on people with serious mental disabilities and foreign nationals denied their right to consular assistance after arrest,” the report said.
Only Belaraus carried out death sentences in Europe, executing two persons in 2017. Globally, Mutasah said that there were 4 per cent fewer executions last year and there was a 14 per cent drop in death penalties imposed.
Some of the “Basic Rights” of Prisoners Under International Law
1. Freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment;
2. Respect for prisoners’ dignity and value as human beings;
3. Necessary medical care, including treatment for mental health issues;
4. Food of proper nutritional value and drinking water;
5. Clean and adequate living conditions, including sleeping and bathroom accommodations;
6. Access to open air and physical exercise;
7. Adequate personal space;
8. Access to educational and vocational activities;
9. Regular contact with friends and family;
10. Access to legal counsel.
10 reasons to end the use of the death penalty

  1. No state should have the power to take a person’s life. 
  2. It is irrevocable. No justice system is safe from judicial error and innocent people are likely to be sentenced to death. 
  3. It is inefficient and does not keep society safe. It has never been conclusively shown that the death penalty deters crime effectively than other punishments. 
  4. It is unfair. The death penalty is discriminatory and is often used disproportionately against people who are poor, people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups. In some places, the imposition of the death penalty is used to target particular groups based on sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion, or religion. 
  5. Not all murder victims’ families want the death penalty. A large and growing number of victims’ families worldwide reject the death penalty and are speaking out against it, saying it does not bring back or honor their murdered family member, does not heal the pain of the murder, and violates their ethical and religious beliefs. 
  6. It creates more pain. Particularly for the relatives of the person sentenced to death who will be subjected to the violence of forced mourning. 
  7. It is inhuman, cruel, and degrading. Conditions on death row and the anguish of facing execution inflict extreme psychological suffering, and execution is a physical and mental assault. 
  8. It is applied overwhelmingly in violation of international standards. It breaches the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to life and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. On five occasions, the United Nations General Assembly has called for the establishment of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. (Résolutions 62/149 in 2007, 63/168 in 2008, 65/206 in 2010, 67/176 in 2015, 69/186 in 2014 and 71/187 in 2016). 
  9. It is counterproductive. By establishing the killing of a human being as a legal solution, the death penalty promotes the idea of murder more than it fights against it. 
  10. It denies any possibility of rehabilitation for the criminal.

 Inputs from World Coalition Against Death Penalty



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