From torture to the wait
Of the 258 prisoners sentenced to death who agreed to talk about their experiences in custody, 80% of the prisoners sentenced to death questioned declared that they had been tortured by the police. The police’s shocking methods are set out in the study: hands and legs connected to a motor, cigarette burns, beatings, rapes, forced ingestion of urine, etc. Of the 92 prisoners who admitted to their crime during their time in custody, 72 declared that they did so under torture. There are also numerous procedural flaws. Only 166 people questioned were able to meet a judge within the first 24 hours, as is set out by law. The vast majority could not exercise their right to the presence of a lawyer either, generally because of their poverty. The story prisoners sentenced to death tell of their trials is not any better. Only 57 of them stated that they had been present at all sessions and more than half of them (156) found themselves unable to understand the procedures concerning them, generally because they do not speak English.
The research carried out by Delhi’s National Law University also addresses the incarceration time of prisoners sentenced to death, citing the “hard conditions of isolation and intolerable uncertainty associated with their sentence” between the moment of their arrest and the interview. On average, those to whom clemency had been refused had spent 16 years and 9 months in prison, including more than 10 years on death row. The median duration of imprisonment for those who were still waiting for a judgement from the Supreme Court was 6 years and 7 months (3 years and 8 months on death row). Deadlines in the justice system are very long: of the 373 prisoners the researchers met, 127 had to wait more than 5 years to be judged. This situation does not make life any easier for the families who frequently have to call on an expensive lawyer from the private sector to avoid the uncertainty of the quality of legal aid. The numerous journeys they make to visit detainees also represent a significant expense given the long incarceration time.
The NLU researchers have provided a particularly enlightening perspective on the socio-economic profile of prisoners sentenced to death, demonstrating that 74% of them were economically vulnerable. Furthermore, 70% of them represented the main or even sole source of income for their families, something which does not only have an impact on the quality of their defence but also on the living conditions of their families. It also highlighted that 76% of prisoners came from the Untouchable caste and religious minorities. The same observation was made in terms of their level of education: 62% of prisoners sentenced to death had not received secondary education and a quarter of them had never been to school at all, something which marginalises them even further with regard to understating the legal system, particularly their defence. Finally, in perhaps the most worrying information in this study, nearly a third of them (30%) suffered from all the vulnerabilities mentioned above.
Age represents an important factor in the death penalty process in India. In 1980, the Supreme Court decided that “if the accused is young or old, they shall not incur the death penalty.” The idea that a young person still has their life in front of them is, in principle, fairly widespread in the penal system, and priority is supposed to be given to rehabilitation programmes. As for the elderly, they are considered less dangerous for society and therefore greater leniency is demonstrated. Despite this, the researchers discovered that 18 of the prisoners questioned stated that they had been juveniles at the time of the crime. In at least 12 of those 18 cases, the justice system deliberately ignored that information, arguing that the accused did not have any official documents to confirm their age. The research also shows that 87.3% of Indian prisoners sentenced to death did not have a criminal record at the time of the crime.
Experience of anxiety and fear
The authors of the research paint an alarming picture of the conditions of detention of prisoners sentenced to death in India, pointing to the very current use of isolation, something which provokes “severe physical and psychological pain, similar to torture.” Prisoners sentenced to death are often forced to live in cramped, dark cells which do not respect hygiene standards. The infirmaries are described as poorly equipped and mental healthcare services are inexistent even though numerous prisoners suffer from mental health problems. Moreover, prisoners sentenced to death are frequently refused the right to work because of their status as high risk prisoners, particularly the risk of suicide. The researchers heard accounts relating various forms of violence, humiliation and ostracism between detainees, made possible because of the guards’ inaction. Finally, the NLU study highlights the mental torture that a death sentence represents:
“Life in prison is extremely difficult for prisoners sentenced to death because of the hard incarceration conditions and limited opportunities for real human interaction. Moreover, awareness of their sentence provokes a concern among the prisoners as to the precarious nature of their existence, oscillating constantly between life and death. This concern is intensified over time and the long wait, coupled with the uncertainty of their fate, makes their life an intolerable experience of anxiety and fear. During the project, many prisoners told us that they would prefer to be executed immediately rather than prolong their agony by continuing to live in these conditions.”
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