As the debate over the delay in the execution of Parliament attack case convict Mohammed Afzal rages, the National Human Rights Commission has said the high courts and Supreme Court can commute a death penalty to a life term if there is inordinate delay in its execution.
In an exclusive interview to the Hindustan Times, NHRC chairman Justice S. Rajendra Babu said that though the Commission was yet to take a formal stand on the death penalty, it was possible to recommend to Parliament to abolish it altogether. He said that in many cases where the period between the sentencing and the execution has been particularly long, the Supreme Court has commuted a death sentence to a life sentence.
Right-wing parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena have been demanding Afzal’s execution as the Supreme Court has already dismissed his appeal, review and curative petitions. However, the Centre has been sleeping on his mercy petition to the President.
Going by Justice Babu’s views, the delay in Afzal’s execution can become a valid ground for commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment.
Asked if delays like this amount to violation of human rights, the NHRC chief said: “Whether it is a systemic problem or somebody has delayed it deliberately… these are all issues… the cases have to be studied. I can’t say generally in every (such) case there is a violation of human rights.” Skirting the issue, he added: “When there is a judicial verdict, there is very little the NHRC can do. It’s only the judiciary that can correct it… If you want me to say if it is human rights violation or not, I can’t say it.”
Stating that the President or a governor can pardon a death sentence, Justice Babu said: “The presidential pardon is a prerogative and no particular policy can be evolved in such matters. The NHRC by itself can’t evolve any particular policy.”
On the Commission’s stand on abolition of capital punishment, he said: “It’s possible. Just as the European Convention took the view that there should be no death sentence, one can take such a view and then recommend to the Parliament.” He added: “But whether we should do it or not… you see… it should be supported by adequate material. We have to do the necessary research and thereafter, take a particular stand… We can examine it.”
On whether Indian courts have developed an aversion to capital punishment (courts in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi awarded over 60 life imprisonments on a single day last month), Justice Babu said: “The death sentence is to be awarded only in… the rarest of rare cases... If the court is not in a position to come to the conclusion that a case is not the rarest of rare cases, the judges may feel that the appropriate sentence to be awarded is the life sentence. It is a judicial discretion circumscribed by parameters set out by the Supreme Court.”