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UN rights experts commend India high court for death penalty ruling

UN rights experts on Thursday welcomed [press release] the January 21 decision of the Supreme Court of India [official website] commuting [order, PDF] the death sentences of 13 individuals following a finding that their petitions for mercy were unreasonably delayed. The court also commuted the death sentences [JURIST report] of two other individuals on the ground of mental illness. In addition, the court requires all death row prisoners receive regular medical checkups, including mental health status. The new death row standards include offering to prisoners on death row: legal aid, 14 days notice prior to execution, time to see family members before execution, and no solitary confinement for those awaiting a decision on a mercy petition. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns commented that the decision "reaffirms the value of human rights and respect for human life, as enshrined in the Indian Constitution." UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment Juan Mendez cautioned that prisons must still continue to prohibit torture, emphasizing the nature of some methods of execution may constitute torture.

Application of the death penalty has remained a controversial issue around the globe. According to a 2013 study [JURIST report] released by Amnesty International [advocacy website], although use of the death penalty has decreased worldwide since 2003, the US was one of the five countries employing the death penalty most frequently in 2012. In April the UN General Assembly [official website] approved a draft resolution [press release] urging all nations to establish a moratorium [JURIST report] on the death penalty with a view towards abolishing its application worldwide. In March Heyns urged [JURIST report] the Indonesian government to restrict the use of capital punishment to comply with international human rights obligations. Also in March, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the executions of seven people in Saudi Arabia as a violation of international safeguards on the use of the death penalty. The men were executed by firing squad after convictions for theft, looting and armed robbery. Last February UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his call for global support against the use of death penalty [JURIST report], stressing that its application is inconsistent with the most fundamental human right principle: the right to life. A moratorium on the death penalty was first approved [JURIST report] by the UN General Assembly in 2007 and, as of December 2012, has gained the support of 111 countries, with 41 against and 34 neither supporting nor opposing.

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