Renew Death Penalty Moratorium, Then Abolish Capital Punishment
August 21, 2013

In the past year, India has made a full-scale retreat from its previous principled rejection of the death penalty. The government should instead declare an official moratorium, commute all existing death sentences to life in prison, and then work towards abolishing the death penalty once and for all.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director

(New York) – The Indian government should stop impending executions and renew its moratorium on capital punishment, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 14, 2013, the Supreme Court of India rejected the appeal for clemency of Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, who was sentenced to death in 2001 for a 1993 bomb attack that killed nine people. The ruling puts him at risk of imminent execution.

“In the past year, India has made a full-scale retreat from its previous principled rejection of the death penalty,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The government should instead declare an official moratorium, commute all existing death sentences to life in prison, and then work towards abolishing the death penalty once and for all.”

An eight year unofficial moratorium on executions in India ended with the hangings on November 21, 2012, of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani convicted of multiple murders in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and on February 9, 2013, of Mohammad Afzal Guru, convicted for the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. The Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee, has rejected 11 clemency pleas since he took office, confirming the death penalty for 17 people.

Bhullar was convicted on the basis of a confession under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), for the bombing attack in New Delhi targeting politician Maninder Singh Bitta, a critic of the militant separatist movement in Punjab. The government later did not renew TADA because it violated basic human rights. Bhullar retracted his confession, but his subsequent appeals were rejected by the Supreme Court. President Mukherjee rejected his appeal for clemency. Bhullar is presently receiving medical treatment at the Institute of Human Behavior and Allied Sciences for a psychotic disorder. The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, in an open letter to the Indian government, expressed its concern that executing an inmate who is mentally incapacitated is contrary to international law.

In 1983, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the death penalty should be imposed only in “the rarest of rare cases.” The lack of legal safeguards to prevent the execution of individuals whose crimes do not meet this standard is a serious concern. In July 2012, 14 retired Supreme Court and High Court judges asked President Mukherjee to commute the death sentences of 13 inmates they said were erroneously upheld by the Supreme Court over the previous nine years. This followed the court’s admission that some of these death sentences were rendered per incuriam (out of error or ignorance). In November the Supreme Court ruled that the “rarest of rare” standard for capital punishment had not been applied uniformly over the years and the norms on the death penalty needed “a fresh look.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Indian government to demonstrate its commitment to international human rights obligations by halting all executions starting with Bhullar, immediately adopting a moratorium on the death penalty, and abolishing the death penalty permanently in domestic law. On December 18, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution by a wide margin calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment.

“Those who commit violent crimes should be held accountable and fairly punished,” Ganguly said. “As long as capital punishment remains in the statute books, there is always the danger that people will be sent to the gallows because their crime is deemed ‘rarest of rare.’ India can instead demonstrate to the world that it is committed to justice by joining with those nations that have decided to abolish the death penalty.”

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