Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily’s observation that the country should move towards the abolition of capital punishment is clear evidence of recognition in principle at the highest quarters that there can be no rational justification for that extreme penalty in a democratic state. His view is representative of the current thinking across the world. Even if states are still some distance from deleting the barbaric punishment from the statute, they have surely moved towards a de facto moratorium on the practice. Out of step with this trend, however, is the Supreme Court of India’s 1983 judgment that upheld capital sentence for the rarest of rare crimes, a decision that clearly warrants a review. Another compelling reason for revisiting that ruling is the recourse by retentionist states to methods of execution that are less cruel, humiliating, and degrading (such as the lethal injection) than hanging, adopted in India. Significantly, the legal challenge in the United States Supreme Court to the lethal injection has over the years thrown light on how the physical and mental state of convicts (when the dose is administered) entails serious violation of their human rights.
Although Indian law prescribes the death penalty for crimes such as murder, abetting mutiny by members of the armed forces, and waging war against the government, it is in cases perceived as particularly gruesome and politically sensitive that the extreme punishment is awarded. However, those who seek to take the high ground on national security contend that conviction related to terrorist crimes should be treated as a class apart, implying that it should automatically attract the death penalty. The Gujarat government has, following the recent spate of deaths, proposed to make a law prescribing death penalty for manufacturing and purveying spurious liquor. The demand to apply the penalty for various other crimes could weigh heavily on the outcome of the Presidential clemency petitions pending consideration by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Besides, India cannot be oblivious to the growing international trend against executions. The Supreme Court has commuted the death sentence in a number of cases although the lower judiciary has tended to hand it down more readily in recent years. Mr. Moily’s remarks provide room for optimism over the prospect of abolition in the not too distant future.
(Source: The Hindu 31st July 2009)
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