The Role of Mercy in India

There has been such a sustained focus on the right to impose death that it sometimes eclipses its essential corollary, namely the sovereign right to spare life. In India’s modern political system, this power to spare life remains in the form of executive clemency. Executive clemency, enumerated in Article 72 of the Indian Constitution, represents an escape valve where officials unaffiliated with the judiciary can survey the landscape and make decisions on factors beyond the law. Thus, the most logical use of clemency powers is when an individual wrongly convicted, can demonstrate that the system failed or that they are innocent. Critics, however, have argued that this conflicts with the demands of justice and equality, demands a liberal state presumably must heed. Due to mercy’s arbitrary and capricious nature, the state, they argue, should be lawful, not merciful. A study of the mercy petitions rejected by various Presidents in recent history lends some merit to their argument since it reveals a trend of politicization of mercy.

For example, the rejection of Saibanna’s mercy petition came right after the December 16 gang rape; a time when the government needed a facile gesture to show that it was tough on crime against women. He had been sentenced to death for murdering his second wife and daughter after having been convicted for murdering his first wife, however his case was riddled with glaring judicial blunders from start to end. Both the trial court and the High Court convicted and sentenced Saibanna under s. 303 of the Indian Penal Code which provided for mandatory death sentence but had been struck down as unconstitutional some twenty years earlier. The Supreme Court took full notice of the s. 303 issue but then noted that the session’s court faulty finding did not prejudice the cause of the accused since there was no record of any mitigating circumstances.

However what the Court failed to consider was that in cases under s. 303 there is no sentencing hearing, and hence no opportunity to bring on record mitigating circumstances. Moreover, the Court squarely based its death sentence verdict on the erroneous view that Saibanna, already undergoing a life sentence, could not be sentenced to life imprisonment again, and therefore the death sentence was the only available punishment. Thus in effect, the Supreme Court revived mandatory death sentencing. So glaring were these errors that a campaign had been launched pursuant to which fourteen eminent retired judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court
wrote to the President asking him to commute these death sentences. They said that it would be unconscionable and a blot on the administration of justice to execute Saibanna whose petition had been pending for 25 years. These factors should have necessitated the commutation of the death sentence by a government with even an iota of respect for the rule of law. Continue reading

Applying the death penalty to drug dealers is never ‘appropriate’. It violates international law.

On Wednesday, March 21, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo implementing President Trump’s plan to “get tough” on the opioid epidemic: the death penalty for drug dealers. Session’s memo “strongly encourage[s]” prosecutors to seek the death penalty in drug cases “when appropriate.” While this strategy comes as no surprise from a president who has lauded Philippine President Duterte’s approach to drug policy, it’s not “appropriate”. And it violates international law.

Lots of ink has been spilled arguing that Trump’s proposal will violate the Constitution, drive drug use underground, benefit large-scale drug dealers, and grind the federal judicial system to a halt. Less has been said about the international legal implications of the proposal.

Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the United States is a party, limits the application of capital punishment to the “most serious crimes.” The UN Human Rights Committee emphasizes that this category must be “read restrictively,” and the Economic and Social Council of the UN cautions that its “scope should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or extremely grave consequences.” Further clarifying the category, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions explained that the death penalty can only be imposed when “there was an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life.”

According to Harm Reduction International (HRI), 33 of the 55 states that retain the death penalty apply it to drug-related offenses. These statistics, it might surprise you, already count the United States as one of those 33 countries. Though the United States has never executed anyone under the provision, 18 U.S.C. §3591(b) authorizes the death penalty for trafficking in large quantities of drugs and remains in force according to the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

This might be less surprising when one realizes that the United States reserved the right “to impose capital punishment on any person [. . .] duly convicted under existing or future laws” when it joined the ICCPR. This reservation does not give the U.S. the right or ability, however, to opt out of existing customary international law. And that is precisely how international human rights lawyers and scholars increasingly view the abolition of the death penalty, particularly for drug-related offenses. Giving credence to this view, of the 33 countries that retain the death penalty for drug offenses, 17 of them have never executed anyone pursuant to those laws.

Continue reading