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Open Letter to Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India on Death Penalty

02 Nov 2005

People’s Union for Democratic Rights
5, Miranda House Teachers’ Flats, Chhatra Marg, Delhi University, Delhi 110007

OPEN LETTER

2 November 2005

Dr. Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister
Office of the Prime Minister
152, South Block
New Delhi 110 001
India

Dear Prime Minister,

People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) welcomes the efforts of your Government at the highest level to seek the commutation of the death sentence awarded to an Indian citizen, Sarabjit Singh, in Pakistan. We hope that this will be the first step of the UPA government towards questioning the relevance of the death penalty and eventually moving towards abolishing the death penalty in India.

In the recent past the President of India expressed his concern about the imposition of the death penalty with respect to 20 mercy petitions before him. The President suggested that humanism should guide the decision to commute death sentences imposed and has sought reconsideration of those mercy petitions by the Home Ministry. Rejecting the President’s advice would be a retrograde step, in the same vein as the last execution in India in August 2004 that ended a de-facto moratorium on executions in place since 1997-98.

As the President also noted, the core question however remains the very existence of the death penalty in India. PUDR thus calls upon your government to not only accept the President’s advice with respect to the 20 mercy petitions, but take a step further and declare a moratorium on executions. This would also be in line with India’s obligations in International law to move towards the abolition of the death penalty.

PUDR views the death penalty as an archaic form of punishment which upholds the savage norm of an eye for an eye and violates the right to life, a principle on which humane civilisation rests. PUDR does not condone violent crime and calls for punishment to the guilty after investigation prosecution and conviction. However the death sentence rejects any possibility of reform – the very object of punishment.

The death penalty further operates in a criminal justice system riddled with fallibility. While Prof. SAR Geelani and others in high profile cases have been fortunate to have their death sentences and convictions overturned, there is no way of knowing how many other innocent persons may already have been executed. The fallibility is also evident in Krishna Mochi and Others v. State of Bihar, ([2002] 5 SCC 203) where four dalits were sentenced to death and remain on death row despite the senior most judge of the Supreme Court bench not even being convinced of their guilt and recommending their acquittal. The same is true for Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar convicted of his role in a bomb blast in Delhi. In both these cases the death sentence was allowed by a majority vote amongst the judges of the Supreme Court bench.

Given the highly subjective manner in which the ‘rarest of the rare’ principle operates, the death penalty also remains a discriminatory and arbitrary punishment. A landmark case is that of Harbans Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh and Others ([1982] 2 SCC 101) where three men were convicted of playing an equal role in committing a crime. While Jeeta Singh was executed, the President pardoned Kashmira Singh and initially rejected Harbans Singh’s mercy petition. The course of events prompted the then Chief Justice of India Y.V. Chandrachud to observe that the case made “a sad reading”. The death penalty continues to be awarded in a large number of cases despite doubts being voiced even by the present Chief Justice of India designate.

The award of the death penalty is often discriminatory in nature. The poorest who are unable to afford quality legal representation form a disproportionate share of those on death row and, eventually, of those executed. The case of Mohan and Gopi (unreported judgement dated 27 May 1999 of the Madras High Court, and Mohan v. State of Tamil Nadu [1998] 5 SCC 336), is illustrative as the accused were sentenced to death and subsequently hanged despite their not even having a lawyer during their trial.

PUDR believes that the imposition of the death penalty is both politically and legally an anachronism in a democratic state. PUDR emphasises that the death penalty is extreme form of cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment and strongly urges the Indian Government to declare an immediate moratorium on executions towards the legislative abolition of the death penalty.

Deepika Tandon
(Secretary, PUDR)

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