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Uttar Pradesh courts gave the most number of death sentences last year

13 out of 77 death sentences given last year came from UP, a new study finds. Most of those sentenced were accused in cases of sexual assault

A placard seen in Delhi during a protest against the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape in Delhi. (Ramesh Lalwani, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Trial courts in India imposed a total of 77 death sentences involving 76 prisoners in 2020, a study by Project 39a, a New-Delhi based litigation and research group, has found. 50 of the cases involved sexual assault. In 41 cases, the victims were minors, the survey, which was released on Wednesday, added.

Courts in Uttar Pradesh sentenced those accused in 13 cases to capital punishment, making the state the most with death sentences in India last year. West Bengal, with 9 cases, came second.

In 2018, chief minister Yogi Adityanath had expressed his support of death penalty for those accused of raping minors.

The total number of death sentences this year is significantly lower than the 103 sentences imposed by trial courts in 2019, a fact the study attributes to the reduced functioning of courts since lockdown in March 2020. However, 48 of the 77 sentences were imposed only in the first three months of the year. This is more than double the number of death sentences imposed in the same period in 2019.

The reason for the increase in death sentences before lockdown was the strong public sentiment across India to prosecute and execute sexual offenders, the study observes. Such clamour was most evident at a time the courts were deciding on the mercy and curative petitions of the four convicts of the Nirbhaya gang rape case in 2012.

A total of 404 prisoners are on the death row as on 31 December 2020
A total of 404 prisoners are on the death row as on 31 December 2020 (Courtesy: Project 39a)

The pandemic also affected the number of cases decided by appellate courts. High courts across the country decided on 30 cases. Of these, they confirmed death sentences in 3 cases and commuted it for 17 cases. Five cases ended in acquittals. The Supreme Court passed death sentences in a total of 5 cases, one of which resulted in the execution of the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape convicts.

Mukesh, Akshay Kumar Singh, Vinay Sharma and Pawan Kumar—convicts in the Nirbhaya gang rape case—were hung to death in Delhi’s Tihar jail in March. After their execution, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: "Justice has prevailed. It is of utmost importance to ensure dignity and safety of women."

It was India’s first execution since the hanging of Yakub Menon in 2015, second under the Modi-led government.

“The changing realities of the death penalty in India highlight the necessity of robust empirical research that helps assess the impact of various measures and design well-considered reform,” the study concludes.

Project 39a represents death row prisoners and researches on death penalty in India. For this report, titled Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics Report 2020, it gathered data on the basis of news reports in English and Hindi and verified them against judgements uploaded on high court and district court websites.

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