India: First major study of country's death penalty finds fatal flaws

Report calls for halt to all executions amid ‘lethal lottery’

Publishing the first ever large-scale study into India’s use of the death penalty, Amnesty International has revealed a system riddled with fatal flaws. Launching the report at a press conference in New Delhi today, the organisation called for the Indian authorities to abolish capital punishment.

In what is the first comprehensive analysis (running to some 243 pages) of around 700 Supreme Court judgments on death penalty cases during the last half century, Amnesty International warns that the fate of India’s death row prisoners is ultimately a lottery, with international death penalty standards regularly flouted.

The report, Lethal Lottery: The Death Penalty in India, A study of Supreme Court judgments in death penalty cases 1950-2006 - which was jointly authored by Amnesty International India and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Tamil Nadu & Puducherry) - shows that death sentences have been imposed on those who were Children's rights at the time of the alleged crime, and on the mentally ill.

As the reports shows, even members of India’s Supreme Court have themselves acknowledged “huge disparities” in sentencing, with some defendants receiving death sentences and some non-capital sentences for similar crimes.

Amnesty International India Director Mukul Sharma said:

“India stands at a crossroads. It can choose to join the global trend towards a moratorium on the death penalty, as adopted by the UN General Assembly last year. It will also then join 27 countries in the Asia Pacific region that have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.

“Or it can continue to hang death row inmates, when the judicial system that puts them there has been shown by this extensive research to be unfair.”

People’s Union for Civil Liberties President Dr V Suresh said:

“While the death penalty continues to be used in India, there remains a danger that it will be used disproportionately against ethnic minorities, the poor or other disadvantaged groups. There is only one way to ensure such inequalities in the administration of justice do not occur: the complete abolition of the death penalty.”

Though the Indian government will not release full death penalty data, Amnesty International believes that at least 140 people have been sentenced to death in 2006 and 2007 and, according to the latest available official figures, there were 273 people on death row as of 31 December 2005 (though with some 60 to 100 people being sentenced to death by lower courts every year the real figure is likely to be considerably higher today).

Meanwhile, rather than the death penalty only being imposed in the “rarest of rare cases” - as was claimed by India’s Supreme Court in 1980 - Amnesty’s report shows that in the last 15 years the death penalty has additionally been introduced for kidnapping, drugs and terrorist offences. Under three “special laws”, the death penalty is actually mandatory, even though the United Nations has specifically stated that mandatory death sentences should never exist.

Actual executions, however, have recently become rare in India. Apart from a single execution in 2004, there have been no executions in the last decade and Amnesty International is now calling for an official moratorium to be imposed.

  • Read the report summary (WORD)
  • Read the full report (PDF)

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