Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pranab sits on clemency petitions of 11 death row convicts

NEW DELHI Among the ceremonial invitations piled on the desk of India’s new President Pranab Mukherjee sits a small file that could provide the veteran politician with one of his biggest challenges. The folder contains 11 mercy petitions from condemned convicts for whom Mukherjee now represents the last legal obstacle between their death row cells and the hangman. As president, Mukherjee is required to decide on clemency petitions that are forwarded by the home ministry, in the final stage of death penalty appeals process. It is largely an inherited challenge. India has more than 400 people on death row and the courts hand down fresh death sentences every year. But Mukherjee’s three presidential predecessors, while signing off on a number of recommendations for clemency, often stonewalled when it came to appeals the ministry recommended should be rejected. As a result, only one execution has taken place in 15 years - that of a former security guard hanged in 2004 for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. The lack of executions has led some to question why India retains a death penalty it so rarely enforces. Colin Gonsalves, an advocate in the Supreme Court and a founder of the Human Rights Law Network, points to surveys showing public opinion strongly in favour of capital punishment. “The idea of revenge is widely accepted here,” Gonsalves said. “If they try to abolish it, then the opposition will appropriate the issue and attack them,” Gonsalves said. Some legal experts believe the hiatus on executions partly reflects reluctance to hang people affiliated with an ethnic, religious or political group. “The government has to wait and check which groups will be upset before you execute someone,” said Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde. Other observers say the main cause of the lack of executions has been the actions - or not - of Mukherjee’s three predecessors, KR Narayanan, APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil. The recommendation of the home ministry can be returned for reconsideration - but only once, after which the president is constitutionally obliged to follow the ministry’s lead. However, there is no set time limit for providing the presidential signature, leaving room for endless delays. After taking office in 1997, Narayanan opted to sit on eight clemency petitions until his term expired. Kalam followed suit. As well as the eight he inherited, he received 17 more, but acted on only two. One was approved and the other rejected - leading to India’s last execution in 2004. The growing list of 23 pending appeals was then passed on to Patil who received another nine petitions during her tenure. In an attempt to clear the backlog, Patil acted on the home ministry’s recommendations to grant clemency in 19 cases and refuse it in two, including the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s murderers. She left 11 for Mukherjee, among them several toxic cases, including Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri sentenced to death for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament. Mukherjee may also come under pressure to reject any petition from Mohammed Kasab, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, who was sentenced to death two years ago. Source: Oman Tribune Thursday, August 30, 2012 [accessed on 30th August 2012]

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