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India high court commutes 15 death sentences to life in prison

A three-judge panel for the Supreme Court of India [official website] ruled Tuesday that a death sentence can be commuted to a life sentence based upon the government's delay. In ruling, the court nullified the death sentences [BBC report] of 15 prisoners, some of whom were convicted of aiding in the murder of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and of associating with well known bandit Veerappan. The 15 convicts challenged their death sentences on grounds that the government failed to respond to their "mercy" petitions within a reasonable time. Chief Justice P. Sathasivam [official profile] ruled that the government is obligated to inform death row prisoners with respect to the status of their mercy petitions without inexplicable delay. Reports indicate the ruling will likely have implications for many of the approximately 400 prisoners currently on death row in India.

The death penalty remains a contentious issue in India. In April India's high court upheld a death penalty sentence [JURIST report] against Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, a convicted terrorist. The ruling allowed the Indian government to continue a trend toward use of execution that began in November after a de facto moratorium on its use since 2004. Also in April Indian President Pranab Mukherjee signed into law an anti-rape bill providing for life terms and death sentences [JURIST report] for offenders in addition to punishment for acid attacks, stalking and voyeurism. In March the Indian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence [JURIST report] for one of the plotters of the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings that killed 257 people. In February Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant who received the death penalty for participating in the 2001 attack on India's parliament, was executed [JURIST report].

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