A protester holds a placard near India Gate urging death sentence for the accused. (PTI)
New Delhi, Dec. 19: A law to punish rape with death looks improbable and would mean hanging around 60 people daily, lawyers said on a day the clamour for capital punishment grew in the aftermath of Sunday’s gang-rape.
The lawyers underscored the need to speed up the existing judicial system instead of making new laws, with some dubbing the death cry “an emotional response”. Several MPs and Delhi police chief Neeraj Kumar are among those who have called for such punishment.
“The cry for death penalty is an emotional response which does not go well with reason and basic human rights. First we should get our kitchen in order before we think of cooking special meals. Efforts should be to upgrade quality of the justice-delivery system. Fast-track courts and special courts don’t work because it implies that our mainstream judicial system functions as it is and we create something special for some special purposes,” said Delhi High Court advocate and rights activist Anant Kumar Asthana.
At least 21,489 people were held guilty of rape across the country last year — a conviction rate of only 26 per cent — and hanging each of them would mean sending to the gallows around 60 people every day, the lawyers contended, pointing to the long death-row list of 477.
Ajmal Kasab’s execution last month was the first since 2004, when Dhananjay Chatterjee was hanged in Calcutta for raping and killing a teenager.
In Delhi, the number of reported rape cases has gone up 37 per cent in the past three years — 459 in 2009, 489 in 2010, 568 in 2011 and 630 so far this year — according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The latest figure translates into a rape reported every 18 hours.
But Asthana, the lawyer-activist, suggested the remedy lay in faster justice and pointed to the large number of judge vacancies that mean years of wait for the victims.
“The way to deal with such cases is to deliver justice through the mainstream judicial system. We should ask why so many posts of judges are vacant. Where does the government intend to bring (the extra) judges to man these special courts from? How can one expect an overburdened judge to deliver quality justice?” he asked.
According to the law ministry, judge vacancies are over 31 per cent in the high courts and the Supreme Court. Of the 895 sanctioned posts, 284 were vacant on August 1, 2011.
But some wondered whether death is the appropriate punishment. One of them is Ranbir Sharma, a Delhi lawyer who had defended the accused in the Buddha Jayanti Park gang rape of 2003 committed by presidential bodyguards. He questioned the clamour in Parliament.
“I am amazed at what these politicians are saying. Some are lawyers, but just because they are in Parliament, they can say ‘hang these men’. Our laws are restorative in nature, giving everyone a chance at a fair trial and reform. Secondly, in a country of such shoddy investigation, where arrests are made on mere allegations, death penalty would mean innocent men could hang. Life imprisonment is enough,” Sharma said.
Some of the victims also suggested death may not be the answer. “Death penalty is like giving them quick death. It is no deterrent. The best deterrent for rapists is convicting them for life swiftly and leaving them to regret what they did forever. In my case, sometimes there were no lawyers, sometimes the judge was on leave and sometimes the case was just delayed. If the law is changed, will the government ensure that they manage to hang these men? asked a rape victim in Delhi whose case dragged on five years in a lower court.
Lawyer Sharma said gang rape fell under the “rarest of rare category” of crimes but added a life term would do. He pointed out that in the Buddha Jayanti gang rape, dubbed the “rarest of rare” and where the victim was a 17-year-old student, the presidential guards were sentenced to life.
Vijai Kumar, a Supreme Court lawyer, pointed out that the “certainty of punishment, not its severity, is the answer”. “If the system works in a way that a rapist is convicted within months, that is when justice is served. This is possible when every level of police and judiciary work in tandem.”
A Mumbai rape victim echoed the view. “A victim is tested every step of the process, from her parents to her neighbours, from cops to lawyers and judges. Will death penalty make the process of conviction easier? It is better the government works to make the process of justice quicker.”