Death by degrees

The CJI has reminded the government of the cruelty in lingering over mercy petitions

A death sentence, even if a nation deems it appropriate in certain circumstances, is a sombre, tragic and ethically fraught decision. Even as the Supreme Court held off the executions of eight convicts on death row, because more time was needed to inform their families and to exhaust all courses of appeal, Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir said that these procedures were essential. At the same time, the CJI also emphasised that mercy petitions must not be delayed, as they have tended to be. "If a death penalty is to be awarded and it is there under the system, then the quicker things are done, the better it is for everybody," he said.

Many of those who have been kept in limbo for years, not knowing whether they are to live or die, have appealed for reduced sentences. This would be in line with established precedents in other jurisdictions, where prolonged delays are acknowledged as inhuman. In 1986, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the extradition case of Jens Soering that "anguish and mounting tension of living in the shadow of death" is akin to torture. The death row phenomenon is well known apart from the isolation and rigid security in prison, they have to live with the psychological stress of not knowing their fate, which usually causes mental and physical deterioration. That precedent of softening sentences was held up by a Jamaican ruling, for instance, that executing a person who had spent 15 years on death row violated the Jamaican constitution. Other countries have said that any delay over five years that was not the fault of the accused, could be grounds for such a decision in future. India's Supreme Court, too, has decried the excessive wait between sentencing and execution. In 1983, it suggested a three-month rule for executive authorities to make the final decision. In other cases, it has commuted the punishment to life imprisonment, keeping this unconscionable delay in mind. In many prominent cases, the latest being that of Afzal Guru, the Supreme Court has asked the government to stop prolonging the pain for the convict.

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