India aggressively imposes death sentences but hardly ever executes anyone. A new study conducted by the National Law University, which is led by high-ranking judges and lawyers, found that 2,010 death sentences were issued between 2000 and 2017, but only ten people have been executed.

Among the prisoners interviewed for the study, the median wait for a ruling on their appeal was six and a half years, with one prisoner waiting more than two decades to learn his fate.

The study, which was made available on public domain, is the first major effort in India to interview a large group of death-row prisoners and evaluate their treatment. The authorities in India’s prison and court systems did not review the report and have not offered any reaction.

More than 95 percent of death sentences imposed since 2000 were overturned or commuted by higher courts, the study found. But the prolonged uncertainty prisoners faced had a profound psychological effect on them.

Isolation had an effect ‘amounting to torture’
Some prisoners were “extremely hopeful,” according to the report, and others said that they “would rather be executed than live a life with the possibility of an execution looming large.”

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Among those interviewed for the report was a man identified as Jayakanthan — like other subjects, he is identified by a pseudonym for his protection. He “blinked continuously for the first few minutes,” the report’s authors wrote, because he was kept in a cell with no source of sunlight for all but 20 minutes a day. His only human contact was with the guard outside his cell, the report said, and he told researchers that his primary interaction was with lizards that he had lured by sharing his food.

“He felt that the noises made by the lizards were to thank him for feeding them,” the report said. He also told the researchers that the lizards kept visiting his cell, not for food but to “make noises as though talking to him as their friend.”

Other prisoners reported that they were tormented by mosquitoes during their long incarceration, or that they were kept awake by a light bulb in their cell that burned through the night.

The study described “a complete lack of engagement” between defense lawyers and their clients on death row, and it suggests that lawyers were not inclined to do more because of the “extremely low fees” that defendants’ families were able to pay.

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Among 258 prisoners interviewed about their legal representation, nearly 77 percent said that they had never met their lawyers out of court, and that their interactions in court were “perfunctory.” More than 70 percent complained that their lawyers did not discuss case details with them, mostly talking about how they would get paid.

Prisoners complained that legal aid lawyers, at the trial court and appellate court levels, tried to extort money from the families of death-row prisoners, threatening not to turn up for hearings unless they were paid. With a few exceptions, death row prisoners “remained ignorant of the whole process, and also of their fate, whether they will live or die,” said Anup Surendranath, the report’s lead author. “They become the most irrelevant person in the whole process.”

Uncertainty itself becomes the source of psychological strain
With no access to information about their appeals, prisoners interviewed for the report said they “spend their time constantly wondering if the end has come, every time the huge iron doors of the barracks are pushed open.”

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One prisoner, whose appeal was rejected after a six-and-a-half-year wait, said he had only learned that his execution would proceed when he saw it announced on the television news he was watching in prison. He became so agitated that he tried to kill himself with a piece of floor tile before the state could execute him. The day before he was to be hanged, he learned that the Supreme Court had stayed his execution.

A prisoner convicted of murdering his five daughters described a meal of lentils, flat bread and vegetables, which he was told would be his last. He had mixed feelings upon learning he would be hanged: He feared death, he said, but he was also grateful that the uncertainty of death row would come to an end.

The day he was to be executed, the Supreme Court issued a stay order, in a painful twist, on the grounds that he had never received official notice that his petition for mercy had been rejected. #KhabarLive

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A senior journalist having 25 years of experience in national and international publications and media houses across the globe in various positions. A multi-lingual personality with desk multi-tasking skills. He belongs to Hyderabad in India. Ahssanuddin's work is driven by his desire to create clarity, connection, and a shared sense of purpose through the power of the written word. His background as an writer informs his approach to writing. Years of analyzing text and building news means that adapting to a reporting voice, tone, and unique needs comes as second nature.