In 2020, 50 (65%) out of 77 cases of the total death sentences imposed by trial courts involved sexual offences, making it the highest in five years, a recent report by Project 39A, a research and advocacy group in New Delhi reveals. Of the 65% cases involving sexual offences, 82% involved minors.

As on December 31, 2020, a total of 404 prisoners are on death row with Uttar Pradesh having the most number of such prisoners at 59, followed by Maharashtra at 45 and Madhya Pradesh at 37. Andhra Pradesh, with two, has the lowest count of prisoners on death row.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian judiciary’s functioning was disrupted, with a major drop in the number of death sentences imposed by trial courts in 2020. In all 62% of the death sentences by trial courts were imposed in the first three months of the year before the lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020. The report mentions that the total figures would have been much higher in the absence of the pandemic.

Although the overall number of death sentences imposed by sessions court have decreased from 153 in 2016 to 77 in 2020, there has been a steady increase in the proportion of death penalty cases involving sexual offences, from 17.64% in 2016 to 37.27% in 2017, 41.10% in 2018, 53.39% in 2019 and almost 65% in 2020.

India has carried out eight executions since 2000, the last having been in 2020. On March 20, 2020, death row convicts, Mukesh, Akshay Kumar Singh, Vinay Sharma and Pawan Kumar were executed for the December 2012 gangrape and murder of Jyoti Singh. Executions prior to this were of Yakub Memon in July 2015, Afzal Guru in February 2013, Ajmal Kasab in November 2012 and Dhananjoy Chatterjee in August 2004.

The first Death Penalty India Report by Project 39A published in 2016 points out the vulnerabilities of prisoners sentenced to death. 74.1% of the prisoners sentenced to death were economically vulnerable according to their occupation and landholding with 93% of these prisoners belonging to the state of Kerala. 23% never attended school and 76% were from backward classes and religious minorities.

Legislative developments

The Maharashtra cabinet has approved two bills which introduce the death penalty for non-homicidal rape and acid attack by amending provisions in the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. These bills increase the punishment for various offences relating to sexual violence, limiting an investigation to 15 days, and trial and disposal of the case to 45 days from the filing of the charge sheet. The bill has been referred to a joint select committee of the legislative assembly.

Following the gangrape and murder of a 26-year old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly passed the Andhra Pradesh Disha Bill, 2019 (Andhra Pradesh Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2019), awarding the death penalty for rape and gangrape cases. Currently, the bill is awaiting presidential assent.

Global scenario

India is one of the 56 countries to retain the death penalty while 142 countries have abolished it in law or practice, according to a 2018 report by Amnesty International, a global human rights organisation.

Apart from India, notable countries such as United States of America, Japan, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Singapore have retained the death penalty, while prominent countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Germany and Nepal, among others, have abolished death sentences for all crimes.

In 2019, a total of 657 executions in 20 countries was recorded, according to the latest available data by Amnesty.

China remains the country with the most number of executions, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt. Since China classifies its data as a state secret, the exact number of executions is not known but it is believed that over 1,000 executions were carried out in 2019, Amnesty data shows.

This article first appeared on Fact Checker.