Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Who are the death row prisoners in India?

Over three-fourths of 385 death row prisoners between 2010 and 2015 are economically vulnerable, says the Death Penalty India Report

New Delhi: Over three-fourths of the 385 death row prisoners between 2010-2015 are economically vulnerable and over 62% did not complete secondary school, according to the Death Penalty India Report released on Friday.

Around 76% of such prisoners belong to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, other backward classes or religious minorities.

In a first of its kind report, the Centre on Death Penalty at National Law University, Delhi analysed profiles of 385 prisoners awarded the highest sentence by various courts.

The study also found that a total of 241 convicts out of 385 are first-time offenders and 63% are the sole bread winners for their families.

The number of individuals sentenced to death by trial courts in this period was 1,810. The study involves 1,486 cases which have passed the first stage of appeal at the high court. The law requires all death penalty sentences to be confirmed at least by the high court.

Only 4.9% of 1,486 cases in which trial courts awarded death sentence are eventually confirmed after the appeals process in the high courts and the Supreme Court ends.

Taking stock of the findings, justice Madan B. Lokur said that structural and procedural reforms are required to address the issue. “I do not think we have any jurisprudence on sentencing in India. Is it retribution, reformation—we really do not understand."

Director of the Centre on Death Penalty Anup Surendranath clarified that the report is not intended to advance an argument to abolish the death penalty. “The problem really with death penalty is the uncertainty. If we are giving the harshest punishment to someone, we should know the manner in which we are doing it," he said.

The report also pointed out that over 60% of death row prisoners chose to engage private lawyers to appeal against their sentence in the high court. This non-reliance on lawyers provided by the government significantly comes down to 21% by the time the case reaches the top court.

“Legal aid is a bit of a joke," Lokur said.

In most cases, the lawyers provided by the government do not meet the prisoners and only rely on paperwork.

Under Article 39A of the Constitution, the state is responsible for arranging legal aid, through the directive principles of state policy, and ensuring that the legal system dispenses justice without discrimination. Under section 12 of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, all women and children are entitled to legal aid.

In September last year, the Law Commission of India, in its 262nd report, said that abolishing death penalty should be India’s goal. It had called for its abolition for all crimes except terrorism-related offences and “waging war" against India.

The study, however, does not align with the commission’s argument that death penalty must be retained for terror-related cases.

While 213 death row prisoners were convicted for murder and 84 for sexual offences, only 31 were convicted for terror-related offences. Interestingly, the longest duration of trials are also found in such cases. It takes an average of 8 years and 4 months for a trial to conclude in a terror case in which eventually the death penalty is awarded.

In 1980, the apex court in Bachan Singh versus State of Punjab abolished the mandatory death penalty in cases of murder and said a death sentence cannot be awarded except in “rarest of rare" cases.

India has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires parties to abolish the death penalty.

“When the International Criminal Court (ICC), for offences like genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, cannot award the death penalty, we have to ask ourselves if we still want to continue with it," A. P. Shah, former head of the Law Commission, had said.

India is not a signatory to the Rome statute that governs the ICC.

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