Updated: 01/22/2014 00:15 | By Agence France-Presse

India's top court commutes death sentences, sets restrictions

India's Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of 15 convicts on Tuesday in a ruling hailed by rights activists that places new restrictions on executing prisoners in the world's biggest democracy.

India's top court commutes death sentences, sets restrictions

India's Supreme Court has commuted the sentences of 15 death row convicts, ruling that delays in their execution were grounds to change their sentences to life imprisonment - by Sajjad Hussain

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Palanisamy Sathasivam announced that "inordinate and inexplicable" delays in carrying out a death sentence were grounds for commuting a sentence.

The decision was in response to a petition from 15 serious criminals, including four associates of a notorious gangster, but will have consequences for a huge backlog of cases.

India has more than four hundred people on death row, but has carried out only three executions in the last decade following an eight-year unofficial moratorium from 2004 to 2012. 

"Unexplained delay is a grounds for commuting death penalty to life sentence," the ruling said.

The court clarified that delays needed to be "inordinate" and "inexplicable", but it also said that mental illness such as schizophrenia and the use of solitary confinement could make a convict eligible for a reduced sentence. 

"No death row convict can be kept in solitary confinement and it is unconstitutional," it said. 

'Landmark judgement'

Human rights lawyers said that the ruling would again narrow the circumstances under which a death sentence can be carried out. 

In 1983, the Supreme Court said that death sentences -- carried out by hanging -- should only be handed down by judges in lower courts if the crime was the "rarest of the rare". 

"This is a landmark judgement that will inch India closer to abolishing the death penalty altogether," Asian Centre for Human Rights director Suhas Chakma told AFP. 

India would probably continue to execute those prisoners convicted of crimes relating to national security, he said. 

"But 90 percent of the others have been convicted of murder and rape, and these people cannot all be executed," he said. 

The ruling will likely favour three men convicted over the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was blown up in 1991 by a woman suicide bomber suspected to have been a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist.

It will also be welcomed by Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, a militant from the northwestern state of Punjab who was convicted over a New Delhi car bombing that killed nine people in 1993. 

In April last year his appeal to the Supreme Court for clemency on the grounds of mental illness and delays was rejected. 

But Indian public opinion remains strongly in support of capital punishment with celebrations held in November 2012 when a gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks was put to death in the first execution in eight years.

The government also toughened India's sex crime law last year to mandate the death sentence for the most brutal sex crimes after an outcry over the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi. 

Chants of "Hang the rapists!" were common during protests held in the aftermath of the attack, which saw a 23-year-old repeatedly raped and left for dead by a gang of five men and a 17-year-old.

Four of the attackers were sentenced to death in September last year.

New conditions

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called the ruling "an excellent judgement". 

"Since already India uses the death penalty in only the rare of rarest cases, we hope the government will now declare an official moratorium and abolish it all together," she told AFP. 

Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves said he was "overjoyed" by the ruling which also clarified the procedures in carrying out a death sentence.

Convicts should be informed in writing within 14 days when their mercy petition, their last chance of redemption, has been rejected by the president.

It also said they should be able to see their family a last time -- a privilege denied to India's last executed prisoner, Kashmiri separatist Afzal Guru, whose wife and son learned of his death in February last year through news reports.  

India had an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty from 2004, when a rapist and murderer was hanged, until 2012 when Mumbai gunman Mohammed Ajmal Kasab was sent to the gallows.

The moratorium during the time of Presidents K.R. Narayanan, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil, who sat on many mercy petitions without making decisions, led to a build up of death row cases.

Pranab Mukherjee, who took the top office in July 2012, has signalled a hard line by regularly dismissing mercy pleas. 

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