India Supreme Court commutes 15 death sentences due to delays

Updated 21 January 2014

India Supreme Court commutes 15 death sentences due to delays

NEW DELHI: India's Supreme Court commuted the sentences of 15 death row convicts on Tuesday, ruling that "inordinate and inexplicable" delays in their execution were grounds to change their sentences to life imprisonment.
Human rights lawyers hailed a decision which puts strict new conditions on carrying out the death penalty, and could dramatically reduce its use.
"Unexplained delay is a grounds for commuting death penalty to life sentence," read a ruling from a three-judge panel headed by Chief Justice Palanisamy Sathasivam.
The court clarified that delays needed to be "inordinate" and "inexplicable", but it also said that mental illness such as schizophrenia and the use of solitary confinement could make a convict eligible for a reduced sentence.
"No death row convict can be kept in solitary confinement and it is unconstitutional," it said.
India has more than four hundred people on death row but has carried out only three executions in the last decade.
"This is a landmark judgement that will inch India closer to abolishing the death penalty altogether," Asian Centre for Human Rights director Suhas Chakma told AFP.
India would probably continue to execute those prisoners convicted of crimes relating to national security, he said.
"But 90 percent of the others have been convicted of murder and rape, and these people cannot all be executed," he said.
Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network, told the CNN-IBN television network: "I can't tell you how overjoyed I am, how happy I am."
Tuesday's ruling came in response to a petition from 15 death row convicts who challenged their sentences due to the time taken for the president to consider their mercy petitions.
They include four associates of India's slain "bandit king" Veerappan who were sentenced to death in 2004 for a deadly blast in southern India.
The ruling will probably also affect the high-profile case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, a militant from the northwestern state of Punjab who was convicted over a New Delhi car bombing that killed nine people in 1993.
In April 2013 his appeal to the Supreme Court for clemency on the grounds of mental illness and delays was rejected.
Indian courts regularly hand down death sentences for the "rarest of rare" crimes but the country had an informal eight-year moratorium on executions until November 2012, when it put to death a gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Another militant convicted for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 was executed in February last year after his appeal for clemency was rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee.
Mukherjee, who took office in July 2012, has signaled a hard line on the death penalty by regularly dismissing mercy pleas -- unlike his three predecessors.
The Supreme Court last made major headlines in December when it reinstated a colonial-era ban on homosexuality.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said that ruling took India "back in time to 1860" when the law against homosexuality was enacted by the British colonial-era adminstration.

Filipino expats unite as home country battles volcano’s wrath

Updated 1 min 42 sec ago

Filipino expats unite as home country battles volcano’s wrath

  • Filipino groups in Dubai are coming together to collect goods for donation for the Taal eruption victims
  • The Philippines remained on high alert on Friday as authorities monitored Taal, which is the second most active volcano in the country

DUBAI: A vast grey stretched across empty villages – once verdant, now lifeless after volcanic ash wiped its colors. The thick charcoal-like substance cloaked cracked roads, tumbled trees, and dilapidated houses, as an angry volcano rumbled in the Philippines.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced earlier this week when Taal, a picturesque tourist spot about 70 kilometers south of Manila, spew huge plume of volcanic ash to the sky and triggered sporadic tremors around the province.

“When can we go back to our homes?” a hopeful man asked Filipino volunteer Jaya Bernardo, as she visited an evacuation site near where the Taal Volcano erupted on Sunday.

She couldn’t answer him straight, Bernardo said, because that meant telling him there might not be anything to go back to.

Bernardo, who lives in a mildly-hit town around Taal, has been going around evacuation centers to give out care packages, saying it’s “important for people to come together” in times like this.

Within hours of the volcanic eruption, the call for help reached the UAE, home to about a million Filipino expats. Many community groups have been organizing donation drives to collect goods to be sent back home.

Lance Japor, who leads a community group in Dubai, said inquiries were coming in about how to help volcano victims even before a campaign was announced.

“What I’ve noticed is that the desire to help others in need is innate to us,” he told Arab News, adding it was not the first time Filipino expats showed urgent concern and care for their countrymen when a calamity hit the Philippines.

There was a strong response for families displaced from a city in the south of the country after armed rebels captured the area. A community group from Dubai flew to the restive city to hand out gifts to families who had taken refuge in an abandoned building.

Japor’s volcano campaign has attracted the help of private companies such as hotels donating blankets and pillows, and cargo companies pledging to deliver the packages for free to the Philippines.

Filipino expats have also expressed a desire to volunteer, Japor added, and a volunteer event has been scheduled for Jan. 18 at the Philippines’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration’s office in Dubai.

Groups in the UAE are working with organizations in the Philippines to facilitate the donations and determine what the affected communities need. The list includes special face masks and eye drops, said Japor.

The Philippines remained on high alert on Friday as authorities monitored Taal, which is the second most active volcano in the country.

Volcanic ash has blanketed the area and villages lie empty, with authorities warning of a “bigger eruption” as earthquakes were still being felt around the area. 

The region was at alert level four from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, meaning that “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days.” The highest alert level is five.

The institute strongly reiterated total evacuation of Taal Volcano Island and high-risk areas as identified in hazard maps.

“Residents around Taal Volcano are advised to guard against the effects of heavy and prolonged ashfall. Civil aviation authorities must advise pilots to avoid the airspace around Taal Volcano as airborne ash and ballistic fragments from the eruption column pose hazards to aircraft,” it added.

Police in the area have also warned residents against trying to go back to their houses without official clearance from authorities, but local media reports said people were sneaking back by boat to the island and nearby towns to check on their possessions.