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India brings back death penalty over rape, terrorism

Four men found guilty in last year’s fatal gang rape of a student in New Delhi are to be sentenced on Friday. Prosecutors have sought the death penalty but activists warn that the rise of executions in India will not solve the problem.


Outside a district court in the Indian capital of New Delhi, protesters bearing placards that proclaim, “Hang all the rapists” have been breaking out in a now-customary “Hang the criminals” chant over the past few days.

The chants have turned into a rallying cry for many Indians outraged by the rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in December 2012.

On Friday, four men convicted of the crime are set to learn their fate when a New Delhi judge delivers a verdict on a case that sparked a national outcry.

The prosecution has called for a death penalty.

"The common man will lose faith in the judiciary if the harshest punishment is not given," special public prosecutor Dayan Krishnan told trial judge Yogesh Khanna during a court session on Wednesday.

The parents of the victim, who may not be identified for legal reasons, also support a death sentence. "They finished my daughter, they deserve the same fate," the victim’s father told reporters outside court earlier this week.

Under Indian law, the death penalty is reserved for the "rarest of rare" cases. Even when it is imposed, the authorities have rarely carried out executions.

But an eight year unofficial moratorium on executions in India ended on November 12, 2012, with the hanging of a Pakistani citizen convicted of multiple murders in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Months later, a man convicted in the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament was also executed.

Following the massive public outcry in the wake of the horrific December 2012 rape and murder, India passed a tough new anti-rape law.

"The new law introduced the option of the death penalty for rape in two situations: when the woman dies or ends up in a vegetative state, and in some cases of repeat offences of rape,” said Yug Chaudhry, a Mumbai-based criminal lawyer, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.

‘Death for rape’

A human rights lawyer and vocal opponent of the death penalty, Chaudhry believes India’s political leaders have bowed to popular pressure while failing to address the root of the problem.

“The death penalty diverts attention from the main issues: the safety of women in the street, education and police reform,” he said.

But many Indians such as Niharika Midha, who launched an online petition "Death for rape” last December, support the death penalty and want to see the new legislation properly implemented.

In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Britain, where she has been living for the past three years, Midha said she was moved to act by the sheer brutality of the crime. “I felt far away but the case affected me profoundly. My family, my friends live in India. This could happen to them,” she explained.

Like Chaudhry, Midha also demands better a police response to crimes against women in a country where most cases are not registered and victims’ rights are routinely compromised by law enforcement officials. “But it will take 30 years,” said Midha, referring to long-term structural changes and reforms. “Meanwhile, these criminals should not be released,” she added.

Turning ‘to the guillotine for a quick-fix solution’

Activists and members of Indian civil society groups, however, argue that the death penalty is not a quick fix solution to India’s deeply rooted patriarchal attitudes.

While welcoming the guilty verdict against the four men, Indian women’s rights groups have cautioned against a death sentence, noting that research across the world has shown that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent and fearing the case would set a dangerous precedent for all rapes to be punished by hanging.

In 1983, India's Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty should only be used in “the rarest of rare cases” -- a ruling that has seen hundreds of death sentences commuted to life in prison over the past few years.

But the unofficial moratorium ended with execution of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Chaudhry, who unsuccessfully defended a pardon for Kasab, holds the current Indian President Pranab Mukherjee responsible for the new wave of executions. "His predecessors rejected six clemency pleas over 15 years. He has denied 20 during his first year in office,” said Chaudhry.

In a column in The Huffington Post, Sajid Suleman, a human rights researcher, noted that India’s recent use of the death penalty, “gives the impression that when the root cause of the crime is complex and the solution requires a long term strategy, the Indian authorities turn to the guillotine for a quick-fix solution. The execution of a Pakistani will not resolve the territorial dispute with Pakistan,” wrote Suleman.

“One might expect the Indian public to be angry at their government's unwillingness to prevent crimes from happening, rather than calling for more severe punishments for the perpetrators once a crime has been committed,” he added.

India currently has about 400 prisoners awaiting the death penalty, according to local news reports.

If the four convicted men in the New Delhi rape and murder case do receive the death penalty, India's high court will still have to confirm the sentences. The four are expected to file appeals, so proceedings could still go on for months or even years.


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