On the question of death and mercy

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With India presently housing at least 414 death row convicts in its jails, the Supreme Court verdict in favour of condemned prisoners has come out as a relief for many languishing in prisons across the country while bringing to focus the government’s apathy in dealing with their rights.

Thirteen mercy petitions were rejected last year, including the rejection of a leniency plea filed by Dharampal from Haryana 14 years ago and nine-year-old plea of four aides of Veerappan from Karnataka. The Supreme Court order has come as a boon for the four Veerappan aides as well as Praveen Kumar, whose mercy plea was rejected last year after being pending for nine years.

Since 1985, an RTI query has revealed that there has been a delay in deciding on the mercy petitions. In 1983, 18 petitions were decided by the President but it came down to four the next year. There were no decisions on mercy petitions for four years and 28 petitions were decided in 1988 but the number came down in single digits in the next ten years.

The decision on Bengal rapist Dhananjay Chatterjee’s petition came after being pending for ten years in 2004. The next decision on a mercy petition came in 2006 and then in 2009. After that, there was a flow on deciding on mercy petitions though the numbers were not high as in 1988.

According to government statistics, 13 women are in jails on death row with Maharashtra having five in their jails followed by Delhi (4), Punjab (2) and one each in Haryana and Karnataka.

An analysis of the figures provided by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) between 2001 and 2012 shows that 1,612 people were sentenced to death by courts. In the 12 years, only three persons, including Mumbai attack convict Ajmal Kasab, were executed.

The figures were 2013 are yet to be made public and officials said they are collecting details from states. Parliament attack case convict Afzal Guru was hanged last year.

In 2012 alone, 97 persons were awarded death penalty in comparison with 177 the previous year while the sentence of 61 convicts was commuted to life imprisonment. The year 2007 saw the highest of 186 verdicts of sending convicts to gallows. A similar high was reached in 2005 when 164 people were sentenced to death.

The years under review also showed that the number of death penalty verdicts hovered above the 100 mark except in 2010 and 2012. At the end of 2012, the highest number of death row convicts were in Uttar Pradesh (106) followed by Karnataka (63), Maharashtra (51), Bihar (42), Delhi (27) and Gujarat (19).

Another interesting point emerging from the analysis is the commutation of death penalty of a staggering 4,382 people during this period by higher courts, in an indication that the trial courts were liberal in awarding death sentence. These cases did not stand up in higher courts.

The highest number of commutations was in 2005 when 1,241 were benefited by the higher court decisions while the next year another 1,020 got the benefit.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on January 22, 2014. The day before Supreme Court had  commuted the sentences of 15 death row convicts, ruling that delays in their execution were grounds to change their sentences to life imprisonment. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/supreme-court-commutes-15-death-sentences-due-to-delays-473572?curl=1390406076)

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