Panel favours abolishing death sentence in India

It feels death penalty is no longer a deterrent, recommends executions only for terrorism

A law panel tasked by India's Supreme Court to look into the death penalty has recommended that it be abolished for all crimes except those related to terrorism as it no longer has a deterrent effect.

While its recommendation could lead the government to consider taking a look at a partial ban, the final decision rests with the government.

"The death penalty does not serve the… goal of deterrence any more than life imprisonment," the commission said in its report.

"Retribution has an important role to play in punishment. However, it cannot be reduced to vengeance,'' added the executive body that deals with legal reform.

The commission suggested that instead of relying on the death penalty - which is carried out by hanging - the government and courts should look at compensation schemes and rehabilitation for victims, witness protection programmes and police reforms to raise the quality of investigation.

"It is for the government to make a call. The report is to start a debate and at some point make a clean break from the past,'' the commission's chairman, Mr A.P. Shah, a retired justice, told a press conference yesterday.

India is one of about 58 countries that still have the death penalty.

Its lower courts routinely hand down the death sentence, but this is usually commuted to life by the time it reaches the Supreme Court, which upholds the death penalty only in "rarest of rare" cases.

According to National Crime Records Bureau statistics, 4,321 out of 5,776 death penalties were commuted to life sentences between 2001 and 2011.

No execution was carried out between 2005 and 2011.

In the past three years, there were three executions, all terrorism-related cases.

Mohammed Kasab, the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, was hanged in 2012, followed in 2013 by Afzal Guru, who was convicted of the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament. In July, Yakub Memon was executed for his role in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts.

Human rights activists, while welcoming the law commission's report, said the Indian government was not ready for a complete ban, given India's deep concerns about being a terrorism target.

"It is recommendatory in nature but it basically makes it clear that the government will have to take a position on this,'' said Mr Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. "I don't think India is ready to abolish the death penalty entirely. If it is restricted to terror cases then there is hope for a forward movement."

The report comes at a time when there has been an intense debate on the merits of the death penalty following Yakub's execution.

Media organisations such as The Times of India and The Hindu have spoken out strongly in favour of abolishing the death penalty.

Political parties such as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its rival Congress party remain deeply divided on the issue.

BJP MP Varun Gandhi noted in a magazine article last month that 94 per cent of death-row convicts are either Dalits, formerly considered "untouchables", or from minority communities. He said the death penalty is an "anomaly" that needs to be corrected.

While the report was approved by a majority of the commission's nine members, three of them favoured retaining the death penalty, reflecting the deep divide in the country.

Despite the divisive nature of the issue, the commission's report argued that it "is logical we move towards abolition".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'Panel favours abolishing death sentence in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe