India is confronting the prospect of hanging two sisters convicted of abducting and murdering young children – the first time it would have used the death sentence against women.
Renuka Shinde, 41, and 36-year-old Seema Gavit were convicted in 2001 of kidnapping and killing five children in the western state of Maharashtra. Originally charged with the deaths of 13 children, the court heard they kidnapped the youngsters as part of a begging operation and then brutally disposed of them when they were no longer of any use.
In 2004, an appeal court upheld their death sentence and two years later India’s Supreme Court did the same. Last month, India’s President, Pranab Mukherjee, rejected their appeal for clemency and at the weekend the so-called buffer zone – the period by when the government is obliged to inform all concerned parties of the president’s decision – expired.
The women, being held in Yerawada Central Jail near the city of Pune, could, in theory, be hanged at any time. Nobody from the jail was on Monday available for comment. Reports in the local media say officials there are engaged with the police, local officials and doctors on when the hanging should proceed.
Since 1983, the Indian courts have handed down the death penalty only for the “rarest of rare” cases. In recent years, just a handful of executions have been carried out, most notably that of Pakistani militant Ajmal Kasab, who was hanged in 2012 for his part in the 2008 attack on Mumbai.
In the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape and murder of a young student, new laws were introduced to specify the death penalty for murder cases where rapes are involved. Records suggest no women have ever been executed.
The two sisters were originally detained in 1996, along with their mother, Anjana, and charged with the abduction and murder of children as part of a plot to obtain money from strangers. The courts were told the women would use the youngsters to extract sympathy from people, or else injure a child, causing it to cry out, if they needed to flee the scene. Their mother died while the case was ongoing.
“They very clearly executed their plans of kidnapping the children and the moment they were no longer useful, they killed them,” the Supreme Court said when it upheld the death sentence. “They had become a menace to society and the people in these cities were completely horrified and they could not even send their children to school.”
The lawyer of the two women, Manik Mulik, said that even though President Mukherjee had rejected the women’s plea for clemency he intended to file a fresh appeal this week. He said it was now 13 years since the women were originally convicted and sentenced.
“The ladies are going to file a petition this week in the [appeal court]. They will appeal to have the death penalty commuted because there has been such a delay,” Mr Mulik told The Independent. “There is too much delay. The Supreme Court has said if there is too much delay if can have a bad effect on the mental health of the convicted people.”
Debate is continuing as to whether or not the two women should be hanged. Dhananjay Mahadik, the member of parliament for Kolhapur, where the women were from, said he personally felt women in India should not face the death penalty.
Yet, Mr Mahadik, a member of the Nationalist Congress Party, added: “The crime they were convicted of was very serious. They slaughtered those children, they did not kill them. They made them beg for them and they killed those children who knew nothing of this world. The court has ordered this and I agree.”
Campaigners against execution have in recent years been pushing the authorities in India to move away from handing down the death penalty, even though a number are ultimately commuted.
“The two women were convicted for crimes that the courts have determined meets the present Indian legal standard,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, of Human Rights Watch. “We believe that the death penalty should be abolished because it is inherently inhumane.”
She added: “We urge that all countries, including India, declare an immediate moratorium on capital punishment and work towards repealing it altogether.”