In a decision handed down last Thursday, the Bombay High Court struck down the mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses as unconstitutional. It becomes the first court anywhere in the world to do so, according to the Indian Harm Reduction Network (IHRN), which petitioned the court for the ruling.
Section 31A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act imposed a mandatory death sentence for a second offense of drug trafficking or possession of more than a specified amount of drugs. Now, courts in Maharastra and Goa can still impose the death penalty for those drug offenses, but they are not required to.
The decision came in the case of Ghulam Mohammed Malik, a Kashmiri man sentenced to death by the Special NDPS Court in Mumbai in February. He had been convicted of a second offense of smuggling charas (cannabis resin).
THE IHRN intervened in the case, arguing that the mandatory death sentence did not allow the court to take into consideration individual circumstances or mitigating factors. The IHRN told the high court the mandatory death penalty was arbitrary, excessive and disproportionate to the crime of dealing in drugs.
"The order marks an important advance in drug policy and anti-death penalty campaigns," said Anand Grover, director of the Lawyers Collective, who argued the case for IHRN. "We will examine the decision fully to assess whether striking down the death penalty, as was done by the Supreme Court for Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code, would have been more appropriate."
Across the world, 32 countries impose capital punishment for offenses involving narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Of these, 13 countries (including India until today) prescribe mandatory death sentences for drug crimes. In countries like Iran and China that actually carry out executions, drug offenders constitute the vast majority of those executed. In May last year, the Court of Appeal in Singapore upheld the mandatory death sentence imposed upon a young Malaysian for possession of heroin.
"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said IHRN head Luke Samson.
"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law. "India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."
For more information about the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses and efforts to combat it, visit Harm Reduction International's Death Penalty Project.