A long list of convicts in the country face a fate "worse than death". They have been sentenced to death but for years they have been waiting to know the fate of their clemency petitions.
At least 33 people charged in 22 cases and given death have their petitions pending with the authorities.
They include infamous terrorists like Mohammed Afzal Guru, who was convicted for his role in the December 2001 attack on Parliament, and long-forgotten criminals like Dharam Pal, who was convicted for the 1993 murder of five people and submitted his mercy petition in 2000. When would Afzal Guru be hanged?
There is no legal provision requiring clemency petitions to be decided within a specific time frame, but why are some petitions kept pending for years and others appear to have been "expedited"? The Supreme Court asked the government last week.
This was during the hearing of the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, who got death for his role in a 1993 car bombing in Delhi in which nine people were killed. Justice GS Singhvi and justice SJ Mukhopadhyay asked why certain mercy petitions were decided fast while others were delayed leading to political activism advocating clemency.
Bhullar approached the Supreme Court for his sentence to be commuted to life, on the ground that his mercy petition had been pending for too long. The President rejected his plea in May last year but by then he had already approached the Supreme Court.
Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was sentenced for his role in the assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh, is a death row convict who doesn't want clemency. Since 1995 he has refused to defend himself in any court and has lashed out at people who have filed petitions on his behalf.
The Supreme Court has dismissed a petition seeking clemency for Rajoana saying that the petitioner had no locus standi in the matter. It also observed that the government had already stayed Rajoana's execution.
The entire issue has brought the subject of the perceived ambiguity in dealing with people on death row. It is an established fact that most Presidents in the past have been uncomfortable rejecting clemency pleas. As a result, an unofficial tradition of sitting indefinitely on clemency petitions has emerged.
Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said President Pratibha Patil has broken this tradition and has been making a concerted effort to take decisions on clemency petitions. Home minister P Chidambaram, on his part, has reviewed all pending mercy petitions and has been forwarding them to Rashtrapati Bhavan, these officials said.
Amnesty International , the human rights watchdog which keeps a watch on state executions worldwide, on March 27 wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and requested that India put an official moratorium on any further use of the death penalty.
Sections of civil society, human rights activists and the political class have stepped up the debate on whether it is time for India to abolish death sentence, given that no one wants to be the person who orders an execution, no matter how well deserved.
Former union home secretary GK Pillai believes that sufficient political consensus could be created to abolish death sentence. To those who insist that death sentence is deterrence against heinous crime, Pillai says: "We could always have a provision for life sentences of 100 years in jail instead of the present 14 years. This would mean that someone who the courts judge a threat to society would spend the rest of his life in jail."
A senior Indian Police Service officer, who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, wanted the "political class" to make up its mind on capital punishment.
"Our people are demoralised when criminals convicted for life are granted early release for good behaviour after 10 years. The political class should either agree to executing death row convicts within a week or so of clemency petitions being rejected or alternately they should abolish the death penalty and replace it with an equally deterrent punishment like rigorous imprisonment in jail till the convict dies," said the police officer.
RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal has been asking the government uncomfortable questions about prisoners on death row. He wants mercy petitions to be decided in three months.
"Rules must be framed to have a final decision on mercy petitions. I believe that mercy petitions can be decided on within three months of being filed and an execution (where so decided) must be completed within a calendar week," says Agrawal.
"Indecision of this nature can result in India being exposed and vulnerable to repeat scenarios like the hijacking of flight IC 814 or the Rubaina Syed kidnapping. In both cases, the motive was the release of terrorists in Indian prisons," he says.
Dhananjoy Chatterjee , who raped and murdered a schoolgirl, was the last person India hanged. That was in August 2004.
For a nation that has retained the death penalty provision in law, but failed to implement it for the past eight years is it time to take a fresh look at the law?
Status of pending mercy petitions filed by 33 death row convicts
Timeline (Numbers indicate year of filing mercy petitions):
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Mercy petitions: inhumane procrastination