Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Great Wait: India’s Death Row Prisons

By Michael Edison Hayden

February 21, 2012, 10:00 AM IST
At the end of this month, a young man named Suresh will mark an unspeakable anniversary. Fourteen years ago, on Feb. 28,1998, his mother Jayshree was raped and slaughtered by the man referred to by tabloids as “India’s Jack the Ripper.” And while the killer, whose real name is Umesh Reddy, was sentenced to death, it remains unclear as to when, if ever, the case will be resolved.

Mr. Reddy currently resides in Belgaum Central Prison, a spacious facility filled with lush green grass, gray dungeon-like dwellings, and a theatrical hangman’s pit intended for executions that one guard reported to me had not been used “in well over 25 years.” Rust has accrued along the metal beams of the gallows. Down below, inside the stairwell in which inmate’s bodies are intended to fall, globs of rainwater, leaves, and dead insects cluster against the mossy pavement. A fortress-like encasement of giant, peeling walls topped with angry-looking barbed wire blocks the outside world from the prisoners.

Make no mistake: Belgaum Central is a bleak and forbidding place. Mr. Reddy’s cellmates are a collection of South India’s most fearsome criminals. A serial rapist and killer in his own right, he regularly fraternizes with a man who refers to himself as “Dr. Ibrahim” –the leading plotter of the Bangalore bomb blasts, which destroyed Christian churches and lives back in 2000.

When we met, Mr. Reddy asked if Ibrahim could act as his translator and advisor. Another one of his friends (who prefers to remain nameless), is a boy-faced little man who was once a member of the Dandulpalya Gang, a murderous South Indian version of the Manson family. Their group was once known for, among more brutal crimes like the slaughter of the elderly, and according to local crime reporters, consuming donkey’s blood on the night of the full moon.

And despite the seeming volatility of such a social circle, the group walks around the contained death-row facility unpinned and unshackled. Their camaraderie seems to be one more based upon commiseration than on conspiracy. “Every night I go to bed crying,” Mr. Reddy told me. “I hate this awful place.” One could justly argue that Mr. Reddy, who ruined the lives of potentially scores of innocent women during his fetishistic crime spree, deserves very much to hate his surroundings. And despite the fact that he steadfastly denies his crimes, it might be a fair assessment, if it didn’t seem that his surroundings were more a symbol of an unintended institutional failure, or, at the very least, the unspoken compromise of a tentative Indian justice system.

The appeals process for death row criminals here flows upwards from the local courts all the way to desk of the President, or in some cases, the Governor of the local state. The road to a final decision takes decades to reach. So the hundreds of death row inmates in India can sometimes remain there, lingering indefinitely, until a death by natural causes occurs.

Reena Mary George is a Ph.D fellow at the University of Vienna who, during her research, also visited Belgaum Central Prison on behalf of a program called “Empowerment of Human Rights.” Ms. George believes that this purgatorial environment can breed close relationships among cellmates.

“The prisoners on death row with whom I have interacted have all been very cordial towards each other. They have often told me [things like], ‘we are in a situation where we do not know if we [will] live or die, we are away from our families and society. Hence we never fight. We comfort and provide space and respect,’” says Ms. George. Her observations also hint to the possibility that something like the lawyerly relationship between Ibrahim and Umesh Reddy might not be all that uncommon.

“[The prisoners] are united in their demanding of rights. Also, illiterate prisoners are taught by [those who can read]. Again, they help one another by writing letters or appeals for the ones who do not know how to read or write,” she says.

Although there has been ample consideration for such tactics as lethal injection, hanging is presently the only means by which Indian prisoners can presently be put to death. Hangmen remain on government payroll but they are seldom, if ever, called to work. Over the past two decades, only one execution has been carried out in India.

A movement to abolish the death penalty has yet to form in any substantial organizational sense here in India, but with 26/11 Pakistani attacker Ajmal Kasab indefinitely awaiting the results of his own appeal, more attention has been focused on the problematic system.

But for the likes of Suresh, who at age 6, walked into his house to find his mother tied to the floor and choked with multi-colored saris, soaking in blood from lacerating wounds suffered to the genital region, the wait for a final resolution often feels excruciating. “[Reddy] might say he is sad, but he is a liar,” Suresh, who only goes by one name, told me in an interview. “Don’t believe anything he says.” Suresh, now living with foster parents, is a happy 20 year-old man with a positive attitude. When asked whether he wants to see Reddy be hanged, however, the young man becomes stern and grim. He minces no words. “I want him to die,” he told me.

The Supreme Court upheld Mr. Reddy’s conviction in March of last year. Now his appeal sits with the President. How long it will remain there is anyone’s guess. But without any substantial outcry for institutional reforms, the wait for Suresh, and murderer of his mother, goes on.

Michael Edison Hayden is an American journalist, playwright, and screenwriter currently living in Mumbai. You can follow India Real Time on Twitter @indiarealtime. 

Source: Wall Street Journal [accessed on 23rd Feb 2012]

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