02/03/2023, 18.14
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More death sentences but few executions in India

by Alessandra De Poli

Some 539 people are currently on death row, but only eight were executed since 2004. Last year, India's Supreme Court empowered a constitutional bench to draw up guidelines for trial courts. The last executions were carried out in 2020.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The number of death sentences in India has increased in recent years, 165 in 2022 alone, the highest number since 2000; however, it is rarely carried out.

At present, at least 539 people are on death row, the highest figure since 2004, this according to the annual report by Project 39A, an advocacy programme by the National Law University, Delhi,  named after Article 39-A of the Indian constitution, which promotes the values of equal justice and opportunity.

The figures are relevant because, for the first time since 1980, the Indian Supreme Court proposed last year a revision of the legal framework governing capital punishment, which in India is usually done by hanging.

It  did so after noticing that many lower courts did not follow guidelines on the death penalty, which is applicable to a number of offences, such as murder, terrorism and treason. Far too often though, defendants are sentenced to death on the same day they are convicted.

In a report, Project 39A points out that death sentences are mostly handed down in trial courts, with few cases reaching higher courts in appeal, although the death penalty must be confirmed by the high court in each state or territory.

Investigations confirm what a Supreme Court bench found in May 2022 when they commuted the death penalty in one case to 25 years in prison, namely that trial courts fail to follow the Code of Criminal Procedure, according to which life imprisonment must be the norm and death the exception, used only in the “rarest of rare” circumstances.

In particular, in reviewing the death sentence upheld by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in the case a three defendants convicted of killing a family of three and robbing their home, the Supreme Court pointed out that neither the trial court nor the High Court gathered all the information necessary to properly assess the case and did not “provide an effective sentencing hearing” to the accused.

For this reason, in September, India's highest court referred the matter to a five-judge constitutional bench to assess how and when so-called mitigating circumstances (for example, mental health problems,  childhood trauma or the absence of a criminal record) can apply.

In addition, the Supreme Court recommended that prison authorities obtain psychiatric and psychological evaluation for defendants as well as supplementary information and make them available for their defence.

It also reiterated the principle that “public opinion” is not a relevant ground to award the death penalty.

Project 39A attempted to list the number of people executed in India since independence since the government has never collected such data.

It is estimated that more than a thousand death sentences were carried out in the 20 years after independence in 1947, whilst only eight were reported between 2004 and 2022, mainly for terrorism, murder and sexual violence.

The last time the death penalty was applied was in March 2020 when four men were hanged after they were convicted for their involvement in the Nirbhaya case, named after the victim, who was raped and fatally assaulted in a Delhi bus in December 2012, dying a few days later in hospital. A male friend who was with her was also beaten.

Four defendants were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in 2013, a decision upheld by the Delhi High Court in 2014, while the Supreme Court rejected the defendants’ appeal in 2019.


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