NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – India's Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentences of 15 people to life imprisonment, a decision that human rights groups said would strengthen the rights of other prisoners on death row.
In a landmark ruling, the three-member bench of judges said that delays in carrying out the executions were the reason for commuting 13 sentences, while two people had their punishment reduced because they were mentally ill.
“... we are of the cogent view that undue, inordinate and unreasonable delay in execution of death sentence does certainly attribute to torture … and thereby entails as the ground for commutation of sentence,” said the judgment by the bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam.
The 15 people on death row include a couple who murdered 13 members of their family, and several followers of one of India's most infamous bandits, Muniswamy Veerappan, who was killed by police in 2004.
In their ruling, the judges said that convicted criminals suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia must not be executed.
They also laid out the rights of prisoners on death row.
- They must be provided with legal aid
- They must be allowed to meet their families before execution
- They must not be put in solitary confinement
- They must be informed of a rejection of a petition for mercy
- There must be a gap of 14 days between dismissal of a petition for mercy and execution
The judgment could affect several other cases, including that of three men sentenced to death for their roles in the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Their mercy plea was filed 11 years ago with the president's office but was rejected in 2011.
There are currently almost 500 people on death row in India. Many have been there for years. In recent times, four men were sentenced to death in September for the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi.
Indian judges hand down on average 130 death sentences every year, but India has executed just three people in the past 17 years. Despite its apparent reluctance to carry out death sentences, in 2012 India voted against a U.N. draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.
But in November 2012, India ended what many rights groups had interpreted as an undeclared moratorium on capital punishment when it executed a militant convicted for the 2008 militants’ attack on Mumbai. Three months later, it hanged a man from the Kashmir region for a 2001 militant attack on parliament.
Human rights groups - who have long campaigned for India to abolish the death penalty, saying it does not act as a deterrent – welcomed Tuesday’s rulings.
"This momentous verdict reaffirms the rights guaranteed to death row prisoners under the Constitution of India and international law and standards,” said G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Chief Executive, Amnesty International India.
“It places a strong emphasis on the human rights of all persons, and the government must carry forward this impetus to do away with the death penalty completely.”