Two important death sentence-related events have occurred recently. Parliament has been informed that the government has rejected the mercy petition of Mohammad Afzal (also known as Afzal Guru) who was sentenced to death for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament. Last week, President Pratibha Patil rejected the mercy pleas of three men sentenced to death for their involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
In one case, the decision to reject the mercy petition has been taken two decades after the crime and in the other after one decade. Decisions on such matters—rejection or acceptance—should have been taken much earlier. Such protracted delays may have administrative reasons behind them, but purely in human terms, they are unreasonable.
India is not a country that believes in the liberal application of capital punishment. Judicial verdicts involving heinous crimes only award death sentence in what they term the “rarest of rare” cases. While the debate on imposing capital punishment will continue for a long time—and there are crimes that necessitate its application—keeping convicts on death row for decades is a gross violation of human rights. It is important that these two issues be kept analytically distinct. But once a death sentence has been pronounced, the convicted person should be allowed a speedy appeal or appeals and a chance at securing clemency through a mercy petition quickly.
Administratively, too, given the number of death penalties announced every year, there is no reason to keep such decisions pending for a long time. The number of such cases, when compared with those involving other serious crimes, is quite low. There is no question of an overburdened legal or administrative machinery that needs time. The delays are simply inexplicable. What they do to prisoners on death row is to create mental anguish of the kind that ordinary prisoners cannot imagine. Put simply, this is cruel.
The government, particularly the Union ministry of home affairs, should spare some thought on the subject and arrive at guidelines that prescribe a timeline for deciding such matters.
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