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Widening gap between death sentences, actual executions

delhi Updated: Sep 14, 2013 03:32 IST
Satya Prakash
delhi gang-rape

Friday’s long-awaited verdict in the 16/12 case has proved what an outraged nation had long felt. The gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old paramedical student on a cold December night was the “rarest of rare” crimes that must be punished with death.

But not all convicts awarded death penalty are executed in India. Data reveals a growing gap between death sentences pronounced and actual executions. The bottom line: The four guilty may still get a long rope to hang.

According to an Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) report based on National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there have been several death sentences between 2001 and 2011, but only a few of these have actually been carried out.

Indian courts awarded death penalty to 1,455 convicts from 2001-11, an average of around 132 convicts per year. But an overwhelming number of death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment during this period.

The only convict to be executed during this period was Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was hanged for the murder and rape of a 14-year old girl in Kolkata. This was the country’s first execution since April 27, 1995, when Auto Shankar, a serial killer, was executed in Salem, Tamil Nadu.

The number of death sentences pronounced has been very high despite the “rarest of rare” doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court that limits the scope of awarding capital punishment.

According to the ACHR report — The State of Death Penalty in India 2013 — Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 370 death sentences, followed by Bihar (132). But sentences for 4,321 convicts were commuted from death penalty to life imprisonment during this period. This, of course, included many convicts who were given death penalty before 2001.

The highest number of commutation — 2,462 — happened in Delhi, followed by Uttar Pradesh (458). But thousands of convicts still remain on the death row.

ACHR director and coordinator of the National Campaign for Abolition of Death Penalty in India, Suhas Chakma, said: “The sanctity of the rarest of rare doctrine has considerably been eroded and awarding death penalty has become routine for courts in India.”

Notwithstanding this criticism, the fact remains that most of the death sentences are commuted to life imprisonment.

The president and governors are exercising the power “to grant pardons, etc., and to suspend, remit or commute sentences in certain cases”, given to them, under Articles 72 and 161, to save a fairly large number of convicts from the gallows.

It’s understandable that the president rejected the mercy pleas of 2008 Mumbai terror attack case convict Ajmal Kasab and 2001 Parliament attack case convict Afzal Guru who were executed in November 2012 and February 2013 respectively.