Millennium Post

Have mercy and say no to death penalty

The Supreme Court verdict commuting death penalty of 15 condemned convicts to life imprisonment citing inordinate delay on the part of the government in deciding their mercy petitions is indeed a landmark ruling. The apex court order takes into account the mental torture that indecision over the execution causes to the death row inmates, thereby pointing to a longstanding and cruel tradition in this country to keep the mercy petitions unresolved, adding to the suffering of the kith and kin of the convicts. The SC order also takes cognisance of the fact that delays in execution can induce mental instability, insanity and schizophrenia in death row inmates and convicts suffering from such conditions cannot be hanged. The order, which comes as a relief to over a dozen death row inmates, including the three Rajiv Gandhi assassins - Murugan, Santhan and Pararivalan, and the Khalistani teerorist Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, certainly plugged a gaping hole in the death penalty debate, and took the discourse one step closer to absolute abolition of capital punishment. In fact, the guidelines by the bench headed by chief justice P Sathasivam made it more humane, ruling that convicts must be informed about the rejection of mercy pleas at least 14 days in advance of the actual execution so that the convict gets enough time to challenge the rejection as well as meet his near and dear ones. In addition, the bench ruled solitary confinement as unconstitutional and inhuman, thus ironing out to some extent the serrated edges of the punitive mechanism in the country that is still grappling with the barbaric law allowing death penalty, even if only given in the so-called ‘rarest of the rare cases.’

Clearly, these are big strides in the global debate on capital punishment, even though India sided with a handful of countries, including the US, that voted against the UNGA resolution on death penalty in 2011, just a day before it hanged Ajmal Kasab, the 26/11 terrorist caught alive. While India is very hesitant in handing out capital punishment, only 477 cases in 67 years since Independence, and even more reluctant to actually execute them, only 36 so far. This is a far cry from even the US, which on an average sends to the gallows as many people per year as India has hanged since 1947. Clearly, the rententionist law in the country is one that is prevalent mostly in theory, with former president Pratibha patil commuting 35 out of 39 death sentences to life imprisonment, and president Pranab Mukherjee picking Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab out of turn to prove a foreign policy point rather than as a stance on capital punishment. However, the latest SC ruling that admits delay in decision on mercy petitions as a valid ground in commuting death sentences does quite a lot in sanitising this messy discourse, particularly since capital punishment has not been proven as an effective deterrent to curb violent crimes and since it also directly violates international human rights laws. Moreover, this state-sponsored killing and the irreversibility of capital punishment have been reasons why 100 countries have already abolished it while others still retain it, including China, the Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, though seven, including India, have reserved it for crimes committed in exceptional circumstances.
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