New Delhi: "The death penalty has no place in the 21st century." The quote by UN Secretary General Antnio Guterres seems convincing, but over 50 countries still allow capital punishment and gruesome crimes such as the Nirbhaya gang rape-and-murder case serve as a reminder that the issue of doing away with death penalty is not a settled one.
The 50 countries that still allow death penalty include India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, the US, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Iraq, Indonesia and the UAE, according to information in public domain.
The US-based Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization, states that there are 146 countries that have totally abolished it in law and practice.
India executes criminals only in extreme cases and only 26 executions have taken place in India since 1991, the last being 1993 bomb blast case convict Yakub Memon in 2015. Before that, India had executed 2001 Indian Parliament attack Afzal Guru.
Death penalty is in focus in India with a plea in the Supreme Court by one of the four death-row convicts in the Nirbhaya gangrape-and-murder case, seeking review of the court's 2017 judgement awarding him the capital punishment.
A three-judge bench will hear the plea filed by convict Akshay Kumar Singh, whose lawyer has questioned in the review petition as to why give capital punishment at a time life is getting "short" due to rising pollution.
The apex court had on July 9 last year dismissed the review pleas filed by the three other convicts -- Mukesh (30), Pawan Gupta (23) and Vinay Sharma (24) -- in the case, saying no grounds have been made out by them for review of the 2017 verdict.
A 23-year-old paramedic student, who came to be known as Nirbhaya, was gang-raped on the intervening night of December 16-17, 2012, inside a running bus in south Delhi by six persons and severely assaulted before being thrown out on the road.
Death penalty for rapists came once again in focus after a nationwide outrage over the gruesome rape and murder of a 25-year-old woman veterinarian in Hyderabad by four men and over a 23-year-old rape victim in Unnao being set ablaze by five men. The Unnao woman succumbed to injuries in Delhi's Safdarjung hospital.
However, rights organisations have vehemently opposed the death penalty, with the Amnesty International asserting that it is the "ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment".
"Amnesty opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception - regardless of who is accused, the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt or innocence or method of execution," the rights body says on its website.
According to Amnesty, China remains the world's top executioner - but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret. The global figure of at least 690 recorded in 2018 excludes the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China.
In 2018, most known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq - in that order.
The most recent countries to abolish capital punishment include Burkina Faso (2018), Guinea (2017), Benin (2016), and Madagascar (2015).
The deabte to abolish or make the death penalty more frequently practised remains a raging issue in India and crimes such as the 'Nirbhaya' case serve as a reminder that it is a difficult choice between human rights and popular sentiment on bringing to justice perpetrators of gruesome acts.
"Nirbhaya", meaning fearless, is the changed name of the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern, who was raped and brutalised in a moving bus in south Delhi by six persons, including the bus driver, conductors and helpers, on December 16, 2012.
After receiving treatment in New Delhi for a few days, she was transferred to the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, where she succumbed to her injuries on December 29, 2012.
All the accused in the case, including a juvenile, were arrested and charged with sexual assault and murder. One of them, Ram Singh, died in police custody. The rest went on trial in a fast-track court.
The juvenile was convicted of rape and murder and given the maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment in a reform facility.
On September 10, 2013, the four remaining adult accused were found guilty of rape and murder and three days later, sentenced to death by hanging.
On March 13, 2014, the Delhi High Court upheld the verdict and the death sentences.