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India death penalty: UN human rights experts welcome Supreme Court ruling

GENEVA (30 January 2014) – Two United Nations independent experts welcomed a recent decision by the Supreme Court of India to commute to life imprisonment the death sentences of 15 individuals, and to introduce guidelines safeguarding the rights of people on death row.

“This judgment by the Supreme Court reaffirms the value of human rights and respect for human life, as enshrined in the Indian Constitution,” said UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns. 

“If the death penalty is to be used at all, international law clearly requires that it must follow a trial that meets the highest standards of fairness and due process guarantees,” he added.

On 21 January 2014, the Indian Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of 13 individuals after finding that there had been an unexplained and unreasonable delay by the authorities in deciding on their petitions for mercy. 

Two other individuals had their death sentences commuted to life on the ground of mental illness. “I am pleased to see that the Supreme Court referred to international standards and confirmed that persons suffering from mental illness could not be executed,” said Mr. Heyns.

The Supreme Court also ruled that all death row prisoners should have regular mental health checks and appropriate medical care be given to those in need.  

Other general guidelines by the Supreme Court on the treatment of persons on death row include: solitary confinement during the period awaiting a decision on the mercy petition is unconstitutional; persons sentenced to death are entitled to legal aid, including for filing mercy petitions; a notice of at least 14 days must be given prior to execution; a final meeting between the prisoner and their family and friends should be facilitated.

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E Méndez, also welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. But he stressed that Indian courts must continue to ensure that capital punishment does not violate the absolute prohibition on torture or ill-treatment.

“The fact of being on death row itself and the methods of execution employed may render capital punishment tantamount to torture,” Mr. Méndez highlighted.

Under all circumstances the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the strict adherence to safeguards against them constitute fundamental limits on the use and enforcement of the death penalty, he said.

Mr. Heyns and Mr. Méndez, who had previously raised the case of several of the individuals concerned with the Indian Government, said the Supreme Court’s decision was a “significant step” but they urged India to go further and “establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty”.

The statement by the two experts was also endorsed by the Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Mads Andenas.

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is a director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. He has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues. Mr. Heyns’ research interests include international human rights law and human rights law in Africa. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Executions/Pages/SRExecutionsIndex.aspx

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defence of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Torture/SRTorture/Pages/SRTortureIndex.aspx

Check the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx 

UN Human Rights, country page - India: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/INIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Fernanda Velasco (+41 22 917 9329 / fvelasco@ohchr.org)

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