Updated: January 24, 2021 7:20:39 am
Corresponding to the legislative expansion of death penalty for sexual crimes against women, more than 65 per cent of all death sentences imposed by trial courts were linked to such cases in 2020, the annual study in death penalty in India by Project 39A — a criminal laws advocacy group with the National Law University in Delhi — has found.
Since 2016, the share of sexual crimes in the list of crimes for which trial courts are imposing death penalty has been steadily increasing. From 17.6 per cent in 2016, it jumped to 37.27 per cent in 2017, 41.1 per cent in 2018 and 53.39 per cent in 2019.
Released on January 20, the report found that though the number of death sentences went down to 77 in 2020 from 102 sentences in the previous year, 50 of the 77 sentences involved crimes of sexual violence.
As of December 31, 2020, there were 404 prisoners on the death row, 26 more than the previous year.
The percentage of death sentences in sexual crimes has been steadily increasing from 2016 as sexual crimes against women and children has driven the national discourse on death penalty.
In 2018, the Centre brought in an amendment to the Prevention of Children From Sexual Offences Act 2012, introducing stringent mandatory minimum punishments and the death penalty for penetrative sexual assault on children under the age of 12. Similarly, following the gangrape and murder of a 26-year old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad in November 2019, the state legislature of Andhra Pradesh amended the Indian Penal Code to introduce the death penalty for rape in the state. The amendment is yet to receive assent by the President.
In December last year, the Maharashtra cabinet also approved a law proposing death penalty for heinous crimes against women, similar to the Andhra Pradesh legislation. The Bill has been referred to a joint select committee of the Legislative Assembly.
Incidentally, in over 80 per cent of cases — 41 of the 50 death sentences — involving sexual crimes in 2020, the victim is below the age of 18 years. While only nine cases involve rape and murder of adults, 21 are connected to the rape and murder of children below the age of 12, and 16 in which the age of the victim was between 12-18 years.
For the first time since 2015, four executions took place in March 2020 with the execution of Mukesh, Akshay Kumar Singh, Vinay Sharma and Pawan Kumar — the convicts in the 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder case.
The study also found that the restricted functioning of courts in the country due to the pandemic contributed to a drop in the number of death sentences imposed in 2020. Nearly 62 per cent — 48 of the 77 — death sentences imposed in 2020 were awarded before the nationwide lockdown was enforced to deal with the pandemic. In comparison, 2019 saw less than half the sentences in the same period with 20 death sentences. In 2018, 27 death sentences were imposed in the same time period.
Death penalty cases also took a backseat in the high courts and Supreme Court as well due to the pandemic. High Courts across the country decided only 30 cases involving death penalty and the Supreme Court passed judgment in only five cases in 2020.
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