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65% of Death Sentences in 2020 Involved Sexual Violence Cases: Report

In 48% of the total death sentences delivered in cases related to sexual violence in 2020, the victims were below the age of 12.

Mumbai: As soon as India went under a strict lockdown in March last year, the judiciary’s functioning was one of the first things to be impacted. For several months the courts had to suspend their work entirely and when it resumed, it was only to handle “urgent matters”.

The delay in the disposal of cases led to relatively lesser number of death sentences imposed by trial courts as compared to the past years.

According to the fifth edition of Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics 2020 Report recently published by Project 39A at National Law University, Delhi, all 77 death sentences, involving 76 prisoners, imposed by trial courts, were much lower compared to 2019 when 103 sentences were imposed.

This relative dip in the numbers, the report said, is mainly because of the severe impact of COVID-19 in the country.

Even though the numbers of death sentences have decreased, the proportion of cases of sexual violence has steadily increased over the years, the report said. Of the total death sentences delivered in 2020, almost 65% or 50 sentences were related to cases involving sexual violence. Of those, in 48% of cases, the victims were below the age of 12.

“This indicates that sexual violence, particularly child rape, is increasingly influencing the implementation of death penalty in India,” the report observed. At least 24 death sentences were imposed for murder and two others in a case of kidnapping with murder.

The report, written by Gale Andrew and Aishwarya Mohanty along with the research assistance of Ashna D., Harjaap Singh Ahluwalia and Varsha Sharma made note of the two drastic laws proposed in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Both Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have proposed to introduce the death penalty for non-homicidal rape of adult women and acid attacks. While the Maharashtra Bill, introduced late last year, has been now referred to a joint select committee of the legislative assembly, the Andhra Pradesh bill is now awaiting presidential assent.

“These proposed laws represent the continued legislative expansion of the death penalty for non-homicide offences that began with amendments to the Indian Penal Code, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2018 and 2019, respectively,” the report said.

Also read: Seven Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Demand the Death Penalty for Rape

Worrisome numbers

The fewer number of death sentences does not indicate a change in the judicial approach. If anything, the trend emerging in the first quarter of 2020 is worrisome. The figures state that 48 of the 77 death sentences, which account for about 62% of the death sentences in 2020, were imposed before the lockdown was first announced. This is more than double the number of death sentences imposed in 2019 in the same period.

Worryingly, this figure is even higher than in 2018, which saw the highest number of death sentences imposed in two decades. During the first quarter of 2018, 27 death sentences were imposed, the report pointed out.

As of December 31, 2020, 404 prisoners have been sentenced to death. The death sentences are pending confirmation and other legal requirements before the higher judiciary.

Just a few days before the national lockdown, four men convicted for their role in the Nirbhaya Delhi gang rape and murder case (December 12, 2012), were hung in Delhi’s Tihar jail. These executions were carried out after four years in India. The last execution prior to this was the execution of Yakub Memon in July 2015. In the past decade, a total of seven persons have been executed.

The researchers have compiled cases through media reports and have cross verified them against judgments uploaded on the high court and district court websites. The team then sent out applications under the Right to Information Act to home departments and high courts as a second level verification of the data.

The NLUD’s 39A project led by Anup Surendranath has released annual reports for the last few years. The first report, published in 2016, was compiled after a study, that lasted close to two and a half years, had pointed out the socio-economic vulnerabilities of those on death row.

The study had shown a disproportionate presence of economically vulnerable and socially disadvantaged groups on death row. Of the prisoners on death row then (2016), 76% (279 prisoners) were from lower castes or religious minorities.