As court orders hanging of Nirbhaya case convicts, a look at death penalties in India

With a Delhi court Tuesday ordering the hanging of four convicts in the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder case for January 22, here is a look at India’s record on death penalties and their execution.

The convicts have time till then to file curative petitions in the top court which may or may not be entertained, legal experts said.

Apart from filing curative pleas, every other legal remedy has been exhausted by them, the experts said.

“They will be filing a curative. That is the only remedy left. Otherwise everything is final. Nobody can stop it (the curative pleas) but will it be entertained is the question. They have time till January 22,” senior advocate Ajit Sinha said.

Parliament had last year expanded the scope of death penalty by introducing it in cases of rape of girls below 12 years under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO).

As per the Project 39A report on death penalty released by National Law University in Delhi, between 2000 and 2014 trial courts sentenced 1,810 people to death. More than half of these sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, and 443 people or about a quarter of the convicts, were acquitted by the Supreme Court and high courts.

The Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence of 73 of these prisoners, out of which many had already spent a decade on death row.

The apex court in 2018 commuted 11 death sentences to life imprisonment, while confirming them in three cases in the review plea hearing of the Nirbhaya gang-rape case.

Former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had heard death penalty cases on priority by constituting four benches, each comprising three judges, which sat simultaneously for over 6 weeks to decide the cases of capital punishment.

The apex court had confirmed seven death penalties in 2017 whereas in 2016 it had confirmed capital punishment in one case and commuted seven.

However, the trial courts in India sentenced 162 persons to the gallows in 2018, which was the highest in nearly two decades, since 2000. Of these, 45 included cases of murder, and 58 murder-and-sexual offences.

The high courts confirmed 23 death sentences in 2018 whereas they commuted 58 of them and remitted 10 cases. The year saw acquittal in 23 cases in high courts.

As per the Project 39A data on death penalty, as many as 720 prisoners have been executed in India since 1947. Half of these are accounted for by Uttar Pradesh, followed by Haryana, 90 and Madhya Pradesh with 73 executions.

One of the initial executions of independent India, was of Nathuram Godse and Narain D Apte, assassins of Mahatma Gandhi; they were hanged to death in Ambala Central Jail in Haryana on November 15, 1949.

The crimes punishable with death term in India fall under The Prevention of Child Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) 2012, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967, Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) 1999, Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) 1985, among others.

In 2018, with 22 cases of capital punishment, over four times more compared to 2017, Madhya Pradesh topped the list of states giving death penalty.

With 16 convicts being sentenced to capital punishment, Maharahstra was second in the list, closely followed by Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh with 15 cases each of death sentences.

According to Cornell Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide, the last execution that had taken place in India was on July 30, 2015 of Yakub Memon, a convict in financing 1993 Mumbai bombings.

Prior to Memon, Muhammad Afzal Guru, who was convicted in the 2001 Parliament attack was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court on December 18, 2002.

He was hanged on February 9, 2013, ten years after his sentencing.

The special court had sentenced Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, the 2008 Mumbai attack gunman, to death on May 6, 2010 and he was executed two years later on November 21, 2012 after the then President Pranab Mukherjee rejected his mercy petition. The top court had confirmed the sentence on August 29, 2012.

Both Qasab and Guru were executed in secrecy without informing their family members or the public of the President’s decision. The world got to know only after the hangings had been carried out.

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