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Law Commission Revisiting its stand on Death Penalty
Jul 28, 2014

The National Law Commission is having a relook at its own 46-year-old stand where it had supported the death penalty as a form of punishment in Indian justice system.

With human rights organisations and the United Nations mounting pressure worldwide to do away with this system of justice that actually comes down to `an eye for eye’, the Law Commission has sought public opinion on the debate whether to abolish Capital Punishment in India or not. Also, if some other form of execution can be adopted in the country apart from “hanging by neck till death.”

The Law Commission’s move comes shortly before the Supreme Court of India reopened debate on legalizing passive euthanasia.

India refused to sign a United Nations moratorium against Capital Punishment two years back. Soon after the refusal, India executed 26/11 Mumbai attack convict Ajmal Kasab and 2001 Parliament attack mastermind Afzal Guru. About 98 countries have stopped Capital Punishment while 58 countries, including India, still have death sentence. In the G8, only the USA and Japan have the provision.

The Law Commission has sought to know if sentence of life imprisonment as an alternate to Capital Punishment help criminals reform. It also wants opinion on if the crime of murder as severe and abhorring as an act of terrorism and the offences should be divided into two categories--terror offences and non-terror offences--for the purpose of sentencing and it should be retained for only terror offences. And, should Capital Punishment extend to non-homicide offences like repeated rape as prescribed in the recent Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.

The Commission wants to know if Capital sentencing carries the risk of being judge centric and should there be a provision for rehabilitation of families of criminals sentenced to death. On the current mode of—hanging by the neck until death—the Commission has sought public opinion if they agree with this or some other mode of execution can be used. In some countries execution on electric chair and lethal injections are used to execute.

The Law Commission’s move comes in the wake of recent Supreme Court orders commuting death sentences of convicts, including in the Rajiv Gandhi Assassination case and that of Devender Pal Singh Bhullar, to life sentence. These death row convicts approached the apex court as a final resort after their mercy petitions were dismissed by the President of India. The Court in this batch matter held that various supervening circumstances which had arisen since the death sentences were confirmed by the Supreme Court in the cases of these death row convicts had violated their Fundamental Rights to the extent of making the actual execution of their sentences unfair and excessive. These Supreme Court rulings have averted at least 19 imminent executions in all in the recent past. In fact, before it executed Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru last year, India had an execution free run for a period of eight years.

In this context, the Law Commission wants to know if mandatory guidelines should be laid down for the Governor and President of India to exercise their powers of granting mercy under the Constitution of India in death penalty cases.

Interestingly, the Law Commission in its 35th report in 1967 had recommended retention of death penalty. But then many of the conclusions arrived at by the Commission then were based on deductions on general elements of cultural and social life as it existed then. Some of the indicators considered by the commission such as those on education, crime rates have drastically changed in the last half a century. In the changed scenario the commission now wants to revisit the debate


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