Satya Prakash, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, January 22, 2014

The Supreme Court has once again restricted the scope of death penalty in the country. This time by commuting the capital punishment of 15 murder convicts on the ground of inordinate delay in deciding their mercy pleas. In fact, it has moved a step closer towards abolition of capital punishment in India.

Statutes prescribe death penalty for several crimes such as murder, gang robbery with murder, abetting the suicide of a child or insane person, waging war against the government, and abetting mutiny by a member of the armed forces.

However, section 354(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which was added to the Code in 1973, required a judge to give “special reasons” for awarding death sentences.

The SC in 1980 propounded the “rarest of rare” doctrine in the Bachan Singh case. Since then, life sentence has been the rule and death sentence the exception.

Notwithstanding the “rarest of rare” doctrine, a large number of convicts are routinely awarded death penalty but actual executions are rare.

Indian courts awarded death penalty to 1,455 convicts during 2001-11, an average of 132.27 convicts per year. But most of these death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. During this period, the only convict executed in India was Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was hanged in August 2004 for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Kolkata. In the last few years, the SC refused to award death penalty to convicts in Graham Staines, Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo murder cases on the ground that these did not fall within the category of “rarest of rare” cases. But even the executive does not appear to be enthusiastic about death penalty. Before demitting office in July 2012, President Pratibha Patil  commuted the death sentence of 35 death row convicts to life imprisonment.

The only category of cases the judiciary and the executive agreed on awarding death penalty was terrorism. That’s how 26/11 convict Ajmal Kasab and Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru were executed in 2012 and 2013, respectively. According to Amnesty International, 98 countries have abolished death penalty for all crimes while 58 nations retain it. “This (verdict) makes India move towards being an abolitionist state. It must consider abolition of death penalty once and for all,” said Asian Centre for Human Rights Director Suhas Chakma.

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