NEW DELHI: The fact that our legal system is skewed against the poor and marginalized is well-known. And to that extent, it’s only expected that they get harsher punishment than the rich. But here are figures that tell the full story.
A first of its kind study, which has analyzed data from interviews with 373 death row convicts over a 15-year period, has found three-fourths of those given the death penalty belonged to backward classes, religious minorities and 75% were from economically weaker sections.
The reason why the poor, Dalits and those from the backward castes get a rougher treatment from our courts is more often than not their inability to find a competent lawyer to contest their conviction. As many as 93.5% of those sentenced to death for terror offences are Dalits or religious minorities.
The findings are part of a study conducted by the National Law University students with the help of the Law Commission that is currently engaged in a wider consultation with different stakeholders on the issue of death penalty and whether it should be abolished.
Law panel chairman Justice A P Shah, himself a strong proponent of abolition of death penalty, is to submit a final report to the Supreme Court by next month.
Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan said: “It is true that there is a class bias, otherwise why would we have so many people languishing in jail because they cannot afford a lawyer to get bail?” He said only 1% of the people can afford a competent lawyer. Afzal Guru hardly had any legal representation at the trial court stage, he added.
Founder of Human Rights Law Network and senior advocate Colin Gonsalves holds similar views. “I think the finding that 75% of the death row convicts are poor is the absolute minimum. The rich mostly get away while the very poor, especially Dalits and tribals, get the short shrift.”
The NLU students have interviewed all the death sentence convicts and have documented their socio-economic background. The psychological torture these prisoners face before they are hanged are some of the observations in the study. Prisoners on death row are not allowed to attend court proceedings most of the time. In many cases, those interviewed revealed they were unable to understand proceedings even when they got an opportunity to be in the court as there was not much interaction with their lawyers.
“Gallows are only for the marginalized. The first thing when a person is arrested is his access to a lawyer. The poor don’t get that access while the well-off do and that completely changes their case,” said Suhas Chakma of Asian Centre for Human Rights. For the economically weak, legal aid or advice comes at the trial stage by which time it is too late, he added.
Within the prison, death row convicts are put in separate barracks and kept in solitary confinement. They are not allowed to work unlike other prisoners or mingle with anyone else, leading to many psychological disorders. The result is startling. Many prisoners interviewed said they wanted to die and should be hanged without delay. A few mentally strong ones said if represented well they could escape the gallows.
Between 2000 and 2015, 1,617 were sentenced to death by the trial courts – 42% of them from UP and Bihar. The conviction rate, however, at the stage of high courts and the SC was much lower at 17.5% and 4.9% respectively. Most death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment or acquitted.