India's top court affirms death sentences for Delhi rape

Christian activists doubt that capital punishment can halt the country's sexual abuse crisis
India's top court affirms death sentences for Delhi rape

The parents of a 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus in 2012 take part in a candlelit vigil for her on May 5. (Photo by IANS)

India's Supreme Court has affirmed the death penalty for three people convicted of raping a woman in a moving bus in New Delhi six years ago, but Christian lawyers and activists doubt if capital punishment can curb increasing rape cases.

The July 9 verdict upheld the death penalty in the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student. The top court dismissed petitions filed by three of the four convicts to review its own verdict last year that handed down death sentences.

A fourth person, who also faces the death penalty, did not seek a review of the sentence.

"Giving the death sentence to people for heinous crime will not stop rape," said Charity Sister Mary Scaria, a Supreme Court lawyer and rights activist.

"Society must work to change the mindset of people. A social change should happen to respect women and until that happens, rape, abuse and atrocities against women will not stop.

"Some people consider women as subjects of their pleasure who can be used as they like. This perception has to be changed."

The case that sparked national outrage happened on the night of Dec. 16-17, 2012, inside a moving bus. Six people raped and severely assaulted the woman before throwing her onto a road. She was hospitalized and later flown to Singapore for better treatment but died on Dec. 29.

A fast-track court gave death sentences to Mukesh Singh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thajur. Delhi High Court later upheld the verdict.

One of the accused, Ram Singh, allegedly committed suicide while in jail. A juvenile among the convicts was released from a reformation home after serving a three-year term.

"Some people have no fear of the law. Every day we read and hear news about abuse, so there should be some mechanism to make people understand that in front of the law we all are equal," Sister Scaria said.

The National Crime Records Bureau says that the number of rape cases registered in India increased from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011. In 2014, there were 36,735 rape cases and in 2016 the figure rose to 38,947.

M.P. Raju, a Catholic Supreme Court lawyer, told ucanews.com that from a Catholic perspective the death penalty cannot be accepted because "whatever crime a person does, we have no right to kill a person, a child of God."

Jesuit Father Denzil Fernandes, who directs the Indian Social Institute, told ucanews.com that the church is against capital punishment.

"But in this case the land of the law has considered it a rarest of the rare case, so we respect the judgment," he said.

"Catholic teaching is that we have no right to take away the life of others by all means. There are other options like life imprisonment where at least a person can get time to reform. Most civilized countries have abolished the death penalty."

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The convicts now have the legal option of filing a curative petition challenging the death penalty on grounds that evidence or a legal point was not argued, violating principles of natural justice.

If the petition is also dismissed, a mercy petition can be filed before India's president.

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