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Explained: In the Supreme Court, some questions of Life and Death

SC will hear Monday petitions challenging death warrants issued against Amroha couple Shabnam and Salim, who killed 7 of her family in 2008.

Written by Utkarsh Anand |
May 27, 2015 12:53:39 am
supreme court, india death penalty, detah penalty india, india supreme court, supreme court death penalty, amroha murder case, murder amroha, lovers kill family, lovers kill 7. amroha news, india news While the central government has consistently maintained it would keep the death penalty in the statute books to act as a deterrent, and for those who are a threat to society, the Supreme Court too has upheld the constitutional validity of capital punishment in “rarest of rare” cases.

UTKARSH ANAND examines the laws, rules and issues around the death penalty, and the circumstances warranting execution in India.

Which crimes entail capital punishment in India?

Grave offences such as murder, rape with injuries that may result in the death of a victim and a repeat offender, waging war against the State, and terrorism-related offences causing death are some major crimes punishable with death under the Indian Penal Code. Similarly, there are provisions under The Arms Act, The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, The Air Force Act, The Army Act and The Navy Act wherein capital punishment is prescribed as one of the punishments for serious offences. The now-repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) also contained provisions for death sentence.

What has the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutional validity of the death sentence?

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution ensures the Fundamental Right to life and liberty for all persons. It adds no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. This has been legally construed to mean if there is a procedure, which is fair and valid, then the state by framing a law can deprive a person of his life.

While the central government has consistently maintained it would keep the death penalty in the statute books to act as a deterrent, and for those who are a threat to society, the Supreme Court too has upheld the constitutional validity of capital punishment in “rarest of rare” cases. In Jagmohan Singh vs State of UP (1973), then in Rajendra Prasad vs State of UP (1979), and finally in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980), the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional validity of the death penalty. It said that if capital punishment is provided in the law and the procedure is a fair, just and reasonable one, the death sentence can be awarded to a convict. This will, however, only be in the “rarest of rare” cases, and the courts should render “special reasons” while sending a person to the gallows.

What would constitute a “rarest of rare” case?

The principles as to what would constitute the “rarest of rare” has been laid down by the top court in the landmark judgment in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980). Bachan Singh formulated certain broad illustrative guidelines and said it should be given only when the option of awarding the sentence of life imprisonment is “unquestionably foreclosed”. It was left completely left upon the court’s discretion to reach this conclusion. However, the apex court also laid down the principle of weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. A balance-sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in a particular case has to be drawn to ascertain whether justice will not be done if any punishment less than the death sentence is awarded. Two prime questions, the top court held, may be asked and answered. First, is there something uncommon about the crime which renders the sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence? Second, are there circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose the death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offenders?

What has been the Supreme Court’s view on mandatory death penalty?

The Supreme Court has always said that the death sentence should be given rarely. In Mithu vs State of Punjab (1983), the Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory death penalty is unconstitutional. It struck down Section 303 in the IPC, which entailed a mandatory death sentence for a person who commits murder while serving a life term in another case. The Supreme Court ruled Section 303 violated Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life) since an unreasonable distinction was sought to be made between two classes of murderes. It said all murders would come under the ambit of Section 302, where a court would have the discretion to award life term or death sentence.

Similarly, the Supreme Court ruled in State of Punjab vs Dalbir Singh in 2012 that mandatory death penalty as punishment for crimes under Section 27 (3) of the Arms Act, 1959, was unconstitutional. The government moved a Bill to amend the Act, which is currently pending. There are some other subsequent legislation prescribing the mandatory death penalty in drug cases, but the Supreme Court has not yet struck down the penalty as unconstitutional. A pertinent provision in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, is currently under scrutiny of the apex court.

What are the avenues available to a death-row convict?

After a trial court awards the death penalty, the sentence requires to be confirmed by a High Court. The sentence shall not be executed till the time the High Court confirms it, either after deciding the appeal filed by the convict, or until the period allowed for preferring an appeal has expired. If the High Court confirms the death penalty and it is also upheld by the Supreme Court, a convict can file a review petition and a curative petition, if the review petition is nixed, for reconsideration of the judgment.

A Constitution Bench ruled last year that a review petition by a death-row convict will be heard by a three-judge bench in open court. Such cases were earlier being heard by two-judge benches in the judges’ chamber. A curative petition is still heard in judges’ chambers. Opening another avenue, the Supreme Court, by yet another path-breaking verdict in 2014, ruled that unexplained delay in execution was a ground for commutation of death penalty, and an inmate, his or her kin, or even a public-spirited citizen could file a writ petition seeking such commutation.

Does the executive have a role in clemency?

Yes. If the Supreme Court turns down the appeal against capital punishment, a condemned prison can submit a mercy petition to the President of India and the Governor of the State. Under Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution, the President and Governors have the power “to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offence”. This power was without any conditions until the last year’s verdict by the Supreme Court, which held that judicial clemency could be granted on the ground of inordinate delay even after a mercy petition is rejected.

How is the execution of death sentence carried out in India?

Execution is carried out by two modes, namely hanging by the neck till death, and being executed by firing squad. The Code of Criminal Procedure calls for the method of execution to be hanging. It states: “When any person is sentenced to death, the sentence shall direct that the person be hanged by the neck till the person is dead.” In Deena vs Union of India (1993), the Supreme Court adjudicated upon whether the execution of death penalty by hanging by rope is constitutional. It held the method prescribed under the CrPC was valid. Death by shooting is contemplated under the Army Act, Navy Act and Air Force Act. They provide for the discretion of the Court Martial to either provide for the execution of the death sentence by hanging or by being shot to death.

Can an order of execution be challenged in a court of law?

Yes. The procedure for carrying out the execution must also fulfill certain conditions as stipulated by the Supreme Court in Shatrughan Chauhan vs Union of India (2014), and by the Allahabad High Court in Peoples Union for Democratic Rights vs Union of India (2015). The guidelines hold that a death-row prisoner must get free legal aid for drafting a mercy petition and, if it is rejected, an intimation to the prisoner and his family is imperative. A minimum 14 days’ notice for execution must be given to let him “prepare himself mentally for execution, to make his peace with god, prepare his will and settle other earthly affairs”, besides also allowing him “to have a last and final meeting with his family members.” An execution can be stopped owing to a convict’s physical or mental ill health, the top court has held. The death warrants are issued by the trial court.

In the cases of Shabnam and Salim, the validity of the death warrants have been challenged, contending that the warrants did not specify any date of execution. Further, the convicts still had the legal remedies of filing review and curative petitions, apart from moving clemency petitions.

When was the last execution carried out in India?

The last execution to take place in India was in February 2013, the hanging of Afzal Guru who was convicted of plotting the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament. 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab was hanged in November 2012. Prior to these, the last execution was in 2004, when Dhananjoy Chatterjee was executed for the murder and rape of a 14-year old girl. This was the country’s first execution since 1995, when Auto Shankar, who was convicted of six murders in Tamil Nadu, was executed. Therefore, while the courts sentenced more than 1,400 persons to death between 2001 to 2011, only four have been hanged since 1995. Many of these cases are under the consideration of the Supreme Court and the President for clemency. According to data compiled by the NGO Amnesty International, Indian courts handed down at least 64 death sentences in 2014, but no executions took place. A report by the Death Penalty Research Project of the National Law University in Delhi indicated that at least 270 people were on death row after exhausting all remedies available to them under the law.

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