NEW DELHI – Few countries sentence more people to death than India. Whether those punishments are actually carried out is another matter. Though well over a thousand people have been sent to death row this century, just three have been executed.
Yakub Abdul Razak Memon will soon be the fourth. Jailed for his supporting role in the 1993 Mumbai bombings that killed 257 people, he has made many appeals and is scheduled to be hanged Thursday.
About 300 prominent citizens, including at least eight retired judges of the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, have urged India's president to commute Memon's sentence to life in prison, reflecting what appears to be growing uneasiness in India with the death penalty. Yet some of the most ardent supporters of capital punishment are leaders of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
"Right now, it's imperative that this conspirator is hanged to death. So it sends a message to the terrorists the world over, that India is not soft on terror," said Shaina N.C., a BJP spokesperson.
But Yakub's last hopes of a reprieve, or even a delay in his execution, were belied. A new three-judge panel that Wednesday examined last week's Supreme Court decision rejecting his clemency plea, ruled that there had been no procedural lapses in reaching that verdict. Memon had exhausted all legal remedies
It is President Pranab Mukherjee rather than the more powerful prime minister, Narendra Modi, who is empowered to pardon condemned criminals under India's constitution. By Wednesday, yet another appeal was awaiting a decision by the president. Also, Mukherjee had yet to respond to appeals from citizens including political leaders, journalists, artists and academics over Memon's death sentence.
Memon, an accountant, was convicted of providing financial and logistical support in the series of bombings that shook India's business and entertainment hub in 1993. Those appealing for a commutation highlighted the time he has already spent in jail, that the main conspirators of the terror attacks on Mumbai were living freely in Pakistan and Dubai and that the death sentences of convicts in other terror-related cases had been commuted.
Memon's last appeals for clemency come at a time when a government-appointed panel that frames laws for the country has held a rare debate, seeking the views of lawmakers, social scientists, journalists, lawyers and opinion makers across the country on the death penalty and whether it is time to do end it.
Amid evidence that capital punishment has failed to serve as an effective deterrent against terror or crime, the objective of the Law Commission's discussions was to recommend whether to retain the death penalty or modify the conditions under which it would be applied. It's expected to make recommendations to the Supreme Court by the end of the year; any changes would eventually have to be approved by Parliament.
The number of countries that use capital punishment has steadily declined. Today, more than two-thirds of nations have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.
Last year, Indian courts sentenced 64 people to death, making the country one of the top 10 out of 55 where capital punishment still exists.
According to recent research by the National Law University in New Delhi, since the year 2000 more than 1,600 people have been sentenced to death. A joint study conducted by the university and the Law Commission also found that three-fourths of prisoners on death row are poor people who cannot afford to hire lawyers who can argue their case and often go without legal representation.
For nearly a decade, however, India had an unofficial moratorium on executions. That ended in November 2012 with the hanging of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Two months later, Mohammad Afzal Guru, convicted in a deadly 2001 attack on India's Parliament complex, was also hanged. Both executions were done secretly, without any public notice.
The relatively low number of actual executions in India may reflect the Supreme Court's 1980 directive that the punishment be resorted to sparingly, and only in the "rarest of rare" cases.
"The death penalty is inherently cruel. It is also irreversible. India should join the many countries that have committed to the United Nations General Assembly resolution in 2007, calling for a moratorium on executions and to work toward complete abolition of the death penalty," said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch.
In recent years India's death penalty has effectively been reserved for the most devastating killings, and sometimes not even then. Last year, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences for three inmates convicted of assassinating former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, citing an 11-year delay in deciding on their appeals for mercy.
A leader of the BJP, Subramanian Swamy, said he opposes such leniency.
"You can't go on having mercy for people who have no mercy for the people of India," he said. "We have capital punishment; we must use it when people commit crimes against society."
Ganguly, however, said a better deterrent against crime or acts of terror would be "reforms to the criminal justice system, proper investigation and timely prosecution that ensures that criminals are convicted and punished."