Sessions courts handed down nearly twice as many death sentences in 2016 as compared to 2015, new data for 2016 compiled by the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University Delhi shows.
Over half of the 136 death sentences in 2016 (70 in 2015) were for murder simpliciter, in which the accused was convicted for murder only. In all, sessions courts have handed down 1,790 death sentences between 2000 and 2015.
Despite the Supreme Court in 2015 making it clear that death warrants - an order by a court that has issued a death sentence specifying the time and date that the execution is to be carried out - are not to be issued in haste, secrecy or before the accused has exhausted all his or her legal options, the report found that Sessions courts issued five death warrants in 2016 before the accused had exhausted their legal options. These were later cancelled by higher courts.
High Courts confirmed 15 death sentences in 2016 (handed down by sessions courts in earlier years), commuted the sentences of 44 convicts and acquitted 14 people.
The most significant change came at the level of the Supreme Court - of the seven criminal appeals on the death penalty that came before it in 2016, the SC confirmed none (it did however confirm one death sentence at the review petition stage). This was a notable departure from the previous year, when the SC eight of nine appeals that came before it. Seventy-one criminal appeals on the death penalty are still pending before the SC.
President Pranab Mukherjee disposed of six mercy petitions in 2016, rejecting five and commuting to life one in a case that was confirmed by the SC in 2000, leaving the convict, Jeetendra Singh Gehlot, with no idea of his fate for 16 years.
There were 397 people in all on death row at the end of 2016, 11 of them sentenced under the Army Act and little was know of their status.
Despite being the harshest possible punishment, the administration of the death penalty in India remains shrouded in mystery.
"It is almost impossible to state with any kind of certainty the number of death sentences handed out in any given year or even know the exact number of prisoners under the sentence of death at any given point," the researchers noted. "Additionally, the fact that there exists no reliable data even on the number of executions carried out in independent India speaks to the opacity that surrounds the death penalty," they wrote.
The researchers used RTI applications, official data from some courts, court judgement data and news reports to compile the report.