The Death Penalty in India

On Thursday 28th February 2013, Fabian spoke in the House of Commons debate on the continued use of the death penaly in India. His contribution to this debate stemmed from his work as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs. The Sikh community on the UK is fighting for justice for members of their community in India facing the death penalty.

To watch Fabian's speech in the House of Commons, please fast forward the video replay to 12:45:30

The text of Fabian's speech is reproduced here from Hansard.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I was pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in his application to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate. As hon. Members have said, it is very important that we in this Chamber make clear our views on the death penalty still being in use in India and around the world. We should stand up and show that we totally disapprove of that, and say that all nations should abolish the death penalty.

It is tragic that India, the largest democracy in the world, still uses the death penalty. The worst offenders are China, which is not a democracy, and Iran, which executes more people per head of population, including children, than any other nation. That is not a democracy, either. It is sad to me, and I am sure to many other hon. Members, that the United States is the leading democracy that still uses the death penalty. Our purpose today is to represent the views of the many Sikh and Punjabi citizens in our constituencies, as well as those who are not of Sikh or Indian origin, to show that we want to see India, that great nation and friend of the United Kingdom, abolish the death penalty for good. Many Members have given examples of why that should happen.

I pay tribute to those who started the Kesri Lehar-wave for justice-petition, which many hon. Members and I presented at No. 10 Downing street just before Christmas. In a way, that was the start of the process that led us to today's debate, and we have had some superb contributions so far.

I am sure that many hon. Members recall Danny Boyle's award-winning 2008 movie, "Slumdog Millionaire". The opening scene shows a poor young man being tortured in a police station-an unfortunate but, according to some evidence, accurate image of what perhaps occurs in India. Many Members have already said that the death penalty is an inhuman and degrading punishment. It is irreversible and can be inflicted on the innocent. As many examples provided by hon. Members have shown, it has never deterred crime more effectively than other punishments. It should therefore be abolished in India, as it should be in all other countries. India should honour articles 3 and 5 of the universal declaration of human rights: the right to life and not to be tortured or subject to any cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said in his opening speech.

Let us look at the background to India's use of the death penalty. On independence in 1947, India retained the 1861 penal code, which provided the death penalty for murder. It has been estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 executions occurred in India between 1950 and 1980. It is more difficult to understand the impact of the death penalty since the 1980s. The international community has moved further towards abolishing the death penalty. On 19 November 2012, 110 countries approved a UN General Assembly draft resolution calling for a moratorium on all executions. India was part of a tiny minority that voted to retain capital punishment, arguing for it to be used sparingly and in cases of particularly heinous crimes. On 21 November 2012, India ended its unofficial eight-year moratorium on executions when it hanged Ajmal Kasab and followed that up on 9 February 2013 by hanging Afzal Guru. Both executions occurred in secrecy, with the families being informed only after they had taken place-that would shock anybody who was not already shocked by the use of the death penalty.

Pranab Mukherjee, India's President, has now ordered the death penalty for seven convicts in the past seven months, which is more than any other Indian President in the past 15 years. India is currently reporting one death penalty sentence every third day, according to The Times of Indiathis month. That all happened before the recent knee-jerk reaction to the change in the law to extend the death penalty following the horrific rape and murder in Delhi on 16 December 2012, which my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)
mentioned. Human rights activists in India are worried that this precedent could affect the 500 or so people now on death row in India, including political prisoners such as Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana. As of 11 February 2013, 476 convicts were on death row in India.

I wish to discuss the case of Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar a bit more. Although many hon. Members have mentioned him specifically, I know from my constituents that his case is a real cause célèbre; he has been tortured and treated inhumanely in prison, all for bringing to the public's attention his concern about the disappearance of 42 of his university students. Professor Bhullar was a lecturer at Guru Nanak Dev engineering college in Ludhiana, but he felt he had to flee India for a safer place in 1994, following threats to his life and harassment from the police for bringing this issue to the attention of the authorities and the media. As we have heard, he went to Germany, arriving on 18 December 1994. However, he was detained because the German authorities were not convinced of his claim, mainly because he had false papers on him, and he was deported, under escort, from Germany on 17 January 1995 and handed over to the Indian police at Indira Gandhi airport, New Delhi, by Lufthansa staff.

The Indian authorities gave specific assurances to the German authorities that Professor Bhullar had nothing to fear if he was returned to India and that he would not be tortured. However, as we know, he was arrested on his arrival and has now been in prison for more than 18 years, the past eight of them in solitary confinement, dealing with the daily threat of hanging. The professor's mental health has deteriorated over the past two years and has now reached a life-threatening state. By deporting someone to a death penalty-prone country, Germany violated the European convention on human rights and remains morally obliged to do all it can now to seek the professor's immediate release. Professor Bhullar was examined by a police-assigned medical doctor recently. Although the professor is a highly educated man, his medical examination document is co-signed by him with a thumbprint.

We know that the case against Professor Bhullar is highly dubious; it is based on information that has not been properly corroborated, with the prosecution having offered no corroboration at all. None of its 133 witnesses identified Professor Bhullar. Many witnesses actually claimed he was not the man they had seen. One prosecution witness, a rickshaw worker in Delhi, informed the court that he had no knowledge of the case but had been threatened and forced by the police to provide a false statement. Almost every legal system in the world is based on the idea of proof beyond reasonable doubt and respects procedures in order to obtain safe evidence. The Supreme Court of India seems to have departed from those things in the most important of all cases-that of the death penalty-thus setting an unfortunate new precedent for Indian law.

I am aware that we are short of time today, and I do not want to take up too much more of the House's time, but I am concerned that there is corruption in the Indian legal system. According to Transparency International, judicial corruption is attributable to factors in India such as
"delays in the disposal of cases, shortage of judges and complex procedures, all of which are exacerbated by a preponderance of new laws". However, no case of judicial corruption has ever been put on trial in India; under the Indian system, it is almost impossible to charge or impeach a judge. Another factor at work in India is the low ratio of judges per million of the population; there are as few as 12 or 13 judges per 1 million of population in India, as against figures of 107 in the United States-no surprise there-75 in Canada and 51 in the United Kingdom. The high work load in India encourages delays and adjournments on frivolous grounds. The judicial system, including judges and lawyers, has developed a vested interest in delays, as well as corruption; it promotes a collusive relationship between the different players.

I have been privileged in the past two and a half years-nearly three now-to chair the all-party group on British Sikhs. In that role, I have tried to bring to this House and to my fellow Members of Parliament some of the issues that Sikhs throughout the UK raise with me and with other MPs. These Sikhs are British citizens who form an integral part of so many constituencies and make such a huge contribution to the daily life in our constituencies. I am happy to say that in my constituency I have brought the Sikh community together with the big Jewish community that I represent, because they have so many values in common. Among those values, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has said, is that of respect for life which precludes violence of one person against another. When one goes to a gurdwara, as many of us have done, one feels that sense of respect for one another, and the respect of men for women and of women for men; it is a very welcoming and friendly environment.

I echo the comments made by the other Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), about visits to the golden temple in Amritsar. I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the former Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, on one of the Committee's visits in 2006. Again, I felt that spirituality, sense of warmth and sense of equality as we walked around. So it was really good to see the Prime Minister of our country walking through the golden temple-through that holy place-barefoot, as people have to be, in his suit, as we had to be, and with his head covered. Although, clearly, I am not a Sikh, I was so moved by my visit that I rang one of my close friends in my constituency to tell him that I was standing there at that moment. He said to me, "God bless you for being there."

So this debate is not about attacking our good friend, India; it is not about saying that India is a terrible place. We want India to be there with us in the group of nations that say that the inhumanity of the death penalty should be abolished. There should not be a moratorium; there should be a complete abolition. We want India to succeed. India is growing in importance in the world. India is our close friend, and many of us have close friends who are of Indian origin and who have family in India. I have visited the place three times now, so I hope that the result of this debate is that our Government will, as the Minister has said, put further pressure on the Indian Government. I hope that Members of Parliament will talk to their colleagues and friends in India, including perhaps those in the Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament. I hope that we will talk to families we represent and that they will talk to their friends and family in India to change Indian public opinion about this important issue. I hope that India will see the sense of abolishing, once and for all, this inhuman and evil act of execution.