The Supreme Court does well to impose new conditions on the use of the death penalty.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court finally introduced clarity about what the rights and expectations of prisoners on death row may be. A bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, deciding on a clutch of petitions of 15 prisoners seeking commutation of their death sentence, held that a death sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment if there had been delay in a decision on a mercy petition or in case a prisoner condemned to death suffers from a mental ailment. There must not be solitary confinement of prisoners, said the court. And a person headed for the gallows, as it were, must be informed of the rejection of a mercy petition, and before the death sentence is executed, he or she must be accorded an opportunity to meet with family members.
This clarity is welcome, for the obvious reason that it begins a process of setting guidelines, but also because it implies a call to humane treatment of individuals in the state’s custody. After all, how a society goes about the task of meting out punishment is one of the indices that decides its maturity. It is significant, therefore, that in invoking compassionate treatment for persons given the extreme punishment of death, the SC overturned its two-judge ruling last year on the D.P. Bhullar petition requesting commutation to life sentence on ground of a delay on his mercy plea. In that case, a distinction was made for death sentences under anti-terror laws. Tuesday’s ruling erases any such distinctions.
At the heart of the issue of rights of prisoners — to quality legal aid and to humane treatment — is a society’s stand on what it aims to achieve in the process of punishment. Does it want a medieval, blood-thirsty variant of an eye-for-an-eye? Or does it view the condemnation to enforced custody and even death of persons convicted of particular crimes as part of a process of delivering on the state’s vital contract with its citizens to provide law and order, but in a manner that honours the human rights of all? The court’s ruling, equally, casts a strong interrogative glare on the executive’s tendency to approach mercy petitions with political expediency and the huge toll it takes on the persons already on death row. The ruling must oblige the government to quickly update its procedures. It should also inspire a reasoned debate on the utility of keeping capital punishment on the statute books.