With the rejection of some mercy petitions lying undecided in the Presidential mansion for years, India faces the prospect of a season of executions. This has led to renewed debate on the merits of capital punishment.
According to Amnesty International, which has been campaigning globally against capital punishment, 96 countries have either scrapped it or stopped resorting to it. Last year executions were reported only from 23 of the 58 countries which are holding on to capital punishment.
Among the countries which are keen to retain the death penalty are the United States, China, India and Pakistan. About 300 persons in India, 3,220 in the United States and more than 7,000 in Pakistan were reported to be under death sentence in 2009. According to Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney, 60 to 65 per cent of the death row prisoners in that country are innocent or victims of a faulty justice system.
The President of India has the power to grant a convict clemency, which can take the form of commutation of sentence or even pardon, after the judicial process is exhausted. The Supreme Court has held that the exercise of this power does not involve modification or supersession of the judicial verdict.
Under the established procedure, the convict or his relatives can file a mercy petition before the President. It is sent to the Home Ministry which conveys to the President the advice of the Council of Ministers.
Mercy petitions began piling up as the government took its own time to tender advice to the President or the President did not issue orders based on the Cabinet’s advice.
President KR Narayanan (1997-20020) did not clear any mercy petition. President APJ Abdul Kalam (2002-07) decided just two. He rejected the petition of Dhananjoy Chatterjee of Kolkata, who was convicted of raping and murdering a school girl, and commuted the death sentence on Kheraj Ram, a Rajasthani villager, who had killed his wife, two children and brother-in-law, to life term.
Pratibha Patil, who began her term as president with a backlog of mercy petitions, had to take up the pending cases as the Supreme Court, in a judgment in 2009, said the condemned prisoner and his suffering relatives had a right to demand early decision on their pleas. If a decision was not taken within a reasonable period, the death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment, it added.
In July Devinderpal Singh Bhullat, who was convicted in a case of terrorism in Punjab filed a petition in the Supreme Court complaining there had been inordinate delay in the disposal of his mercy petition. Within days, the government advised the President to reject it.
At that time the president also had before her the Cabinet’s advice to reject the petitions of Afzal Guru, who was convicted in connection with the terrorist attack on the Parliament House in 2001 and of Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan, who were convicted in connection with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 on the orders of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam chief V Prabhakaran.
Last week the Madras High Court took up for consideration petitions filed by the Rajiv Gandhi case convicts asking that they be spared the gallows as they had spent many years under the shadow of death. This offers a slender ray of hope for 18 men who have already spent many years in prison waiting for the government and the President to take a decision on their fate.
Sectarian factors often cloud dispassionate consideration of the issue of death penalty.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has criticised the Central government repeatedly for not hanging Afzal Guru. It has not evinced the same interest in the cases of others in the death row, some of whom got there earlier than him.
Human rights organisations sought to raise the death penalty issue when Dhananjoy Chatterjee was facing the gallows. Middle class groups in West Bengal, including affiliates of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, argued that a rapist deserved no mercy.
The Akali Dal-led government in Punjab has appealed for mercy for Bhullar. After the High Court admitted the petitions of the Rajiv Gandhi case convicts, the Tamil Nadu Assembly, taking note of the sympathy in the state for the Sri Lankan Tamils, passed a resolution seeking mercy for the LTTE men.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah raised the BJP’s hackles by tweeting what would be the response if the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly similarly sought mercy for Afzal Guru. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 5, 2011.