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65% death sentences by trial courts in 2020 involved sexual offences, study reveals

Research by Project 39A reveals that death penalties in trial courts, related to sexual offence cases, have been rising for the past five years. It has been the highest in 2020.

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New Delhi: In 2020, 65 per cent of the total death sentences by trial courts involved sexual offences, an increase from 53 per cent in 2019, new research reveals. Of these cases, 82 per cent involved children.

According to data collated by Project 39A, a litigation and research group at National Law University, Delhi, this is the highest proportion of death sentences in such cases in the past five years.

The report, published Wednesday, also noted that death penalties in cases related to sexual offences have been steadily increasing — 17.64 per cent in 2016, 37.27 per cent in 2017, 41.08 per cent in 2018, 53 per cent in 2019 and now, 65 per cent in 2020.

The past year had also witnessed the execution of the four accused in the 2012 December gangrape-murder case in Delhi — Mukesh, Akshay Kumar Singh, Vinay Sharma and Pawan Kumar — on 20 March in Tihar jail, after a gap of five years.

Yakub Memon, who was convicted in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, was the last person to be executed before them in July 2015.

“The increase in the proportion of sexual offences is due to more numbers of people coming out and raising their voice against these crimes, registering cases. There have been amendments in laws like POCSO (Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences) Act that have enhanced this,” Delhi-based criminal lawyer Ajay Verma told ThePrint.

He added: “This is also due to the sentiment among people after the Nirbhaya rapists were hanged. People are becoming aware.”

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Most death sentences by UP courts

The report noted that as of 31 December 2020, 404 prisoners in India are on death row with most number of such prisoners, 59 of them, in Uttar Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh courts also handed out the most number of death sentences in 2020 with 13 out of the total 77 capital punishments from the state. With nine cases, West Bengal comes second.

According to Project 39A, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a major drop in the number of death sentences by trial courts in the past year. A total of 77 death sentences were imposed in 2020, compared to 103 in 2019.

Furthermore, 50 of these 77 cases involved sexual assault and in 41 cases, the victims were minors.

However, 62 per cent of the total death sentences were imposed in the first three months of the year, before the lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020, which is more than double the number of death sentences imposed during the same period in 2019.

The study attributed the increase in death sentences before the nationwide lockdown to “strong public sentiment across India to prosecute and execute sexual offenders”.

“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 stated.

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