Death penalty hangs by a thin thread

Death penalty hangs by a thin thread
While not revisiting the subject of the constitutional validity of the death penalty, the Supreme Court recently took up the matter of the mode of execution of those on the death row and issued a notice to the Centre, with the observation whether the State could think of an alternative mode to hanging by the neck.

A Delhi advocate has challenged Section 354 (5) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which states that when any person is sentenced to death, he shall be hanged by the neck till he is dead. The petitioner has sought the court’s intervention to reduce the suffering of the condemned prisoner, contending that when a person is hanged, his dignity is destroyed.

While admitting the petition, the court observed, “Legislature can think of some other means by which a convict, who under law has to face death sentence, should die in peace and not in pain. It has been said since centuries that nothing can be equated with painless death,”

This is not the first time that the Supreme Court is examining the mode of execution. In Deena Dayal vs Union of India, decided in 1983, it reviewed the provision of S.354 (5) and said, “It is clear from this narrative that neither electrocution, nor lethal gas, nor shooting, nor even the lethal injection has any distinct or demonstrable advantage over the system of hanging. Therefore, it is impossible to record the conclusion with any degree of certainty that the method of hanging should be replaced by any of these methods. …torture, brutality, barbarity, humiliation and degradation of any kind is impermissible in the execution of any sentence. The process of hanging does not have any of these, directly, indirectly or incidentally.”

In its 187th Report submitted in 2003, the Law Commission of India examined the same subject and stated that administering a lethal injection is a less painful form of execution. It recommended that Section 354(5) needs to be amended by providing an alternative mode of execution of death sentence by administering lethal injection until the accused is dead. It also felt that the convict should be given an opportunity to choose the mode of his execution.

Amnesty International reports that 2,666 persons were executed in 2015 and 2016 in the world. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan are the top five countries where most executions took place.Beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting are the four major methods of execution. In India, the law provides for execution by hanging and shooting, the latter method prescribed in laws relating to the armed forces.

In cases of hanging, the prisoner is taken to the gallows enclosure which contains a beam for the rope to be tied and a platform with a trap door on which he stands and the noose is tied around his neck. When a lever is pulled by the executioner, the doors open, resulting in a sudden drop of the prisoner, which tightens the noose.

The weight of the prisoner’s body becomes the constricting force. Death is caused due to asphyxia and venous congestion. While normally death can occur within 3-5 minutes, if the convict has strong neck muscles, or is very light in weight, or if the ‘drop’ is too short, or the noose has been wrongly positioned, death can take a longer time.

When interviewed by this author, a hangman, who has hanged over 20 convicts, stated that in his long service, excepting for one convict, all had died almost instantaneously. He also revealed that availability of hangmen like him has now become a problem in India.

Painless death

Until 1890, hanging was in vogue in the United States. Subsequently, many other methods of execution like the electric chair, gassing and lethal injection have been tried. A large number of American states now use the lethal injection, wherein three drugs are injected. The bound convict is given intravenous drips containing an anaesthetic, followed by a muscle paralytic that stops the prisoner’s breathing, and a drug which stops the heart.

This method of execution is reportedly painless. Due to shortage of availability of the three drugs, many states in the US are now using a single drug. Medical ethics precludes doctors from giving lethal injections.

The last hanging in India took place in July 2015 when Yakub Memon, convicted for the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was hanged at Nagpur prison. In February 2013, Afzal Guru, convicted for the 2001 Parliament attack, was hanged at Tihar Jail. Ajmal Kasab, convicted for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, was hanged in Yerawada jail.

While the above cases were convictions for acts of terrorism, Dhanonjoy Chaterjee was hanged in August 2004 in Kolkata for raping and murdering a child.

Despite several discussions on the modes of execution, the legislation has not been amended so far. Considering that in the last 17 years, only four persons (including three for terror offences) have been hanged to death, the current discussion on the mode of execution might become just another academic exercise.

(The writer is a former Director General of Police and recently conducted a study on death row convicts in India)
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