The case of death sentence

Print edition : August 27, 2004

Dhananjoy Chatterjee's wife Purnima, father Bangshidhar Chatterjee, and mother Belarani Chatterjee sitting in a dharna on a pavement in Kolkata on June 21 seeking mercy for the convict. - BIKAS DAS/AP

The President refuses clemency to the rapist-killer Dhananjoy Chatterjee, probably bringing to an end the decade-long uncertainty about the execution of the death sentence against him.

WITH President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam rejecting the mercy petition, the noose will tighten around the neck of Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who has been awaiting the execution of the death penalty for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Hetal Parekh on March 15, 1990. This was the second mercy petition of the convict to the President. He has been lodged in the Alipore Central jail in Kolkata for 14 years. The first petition was rejected in 1994.

The convict's family members are not willing to give up. Even as the West Bengal government set in motion the formalities to execute the rapist-killer after receiving a formal communication from the Union Home Ministry, his brother is said to have sought a copy of the letter issued by the President rejecting clemency in order to take the next legal course under Article 32 of the Constitution. (Article 32 confers the right to move the Supreme Court for enforcement of fundamental rights.) Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who worked as a lift operator in the building where Hetal Parekh and her family lived, raped and killed the girl when she returned to an empty flat from school. The Alipore Sessions Court awarded Dhananjoy Chatterjee life imprisonment for rape and a death sentence for murder. The sentence was upheld both by the High Court and the Supreme Court, and the Governor of West Bengal rejected the plea for mercy filed by the convict's relatives. In February 1994, Dhananjoy obtained an interim stay from the High Court. More than nine years later, in September 2003, his petition for commutation of his sentence owing to the delay in its execution was quashed by the High Court, and Dhananjoy Chatterjee appealed to the Supreme Court. In February the Supreme Court referred his mercy petition to the Governor for reconsideration. The Governor once again rejected the petition and Dhananjoy was scheduled to be hanged to death at 4-30 a.m. on June 25.

But Dhananjoy's life was once again prolonged when a communique from the Union Home Ministry asked the State government to postpone the hanging until President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam gave his opinion on a mercy petition filed by Dhananjoy Chatterjee's family and several social organisations. When the President's office sought the State government's views on the matter, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government made it clear that it fully supported the death sentence. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: "The government and I are in favour of the death sentence in this particular case. The Centre has been informed of this. The message should go loud and clear to the perpetrators of such crime."

Following Governor Viren J. Shah's rejection of his clemency petition, Dhananjoy Chatterjee petitioned the Supreme Court, which refused to entertain the petition as the matter was being examined by the President under Article 72 of the Constitution. Dhananjoy's case further weakened when on July 2 the Home Ministry recommended his execution to the President.

With the hangman's noose now looming large over Dhananjoy, the debate that is raging is not whether he deserves to be hanged but whether capital punishment is necessary in today's' society.

Those who knew Hetal feel that Dhananjoy deserves nothing less than the death penalty. Gillian Rosemary D'Costa Hart, principal of Welland Gouldsmith School, where Hetal studied, said, "Hetal was one of our brightest students. A lovely girl who met a very ghastly end. If Dhananjoy is hanged the pain won't disappear, but there would be some kind of justice." On the other hand, Dhananjoy's relatives and friends from his village in Bankura district have continuously appealed to the Governor and the courts for clemency. His family members, including his wife and his aged, ailing parents, sat in dharna in front of the Press Club in Kolkata, and threatened to commit suicide if Dhananjoy was hanged.

Kolkata is deeply divided over the issue. While numerous human rights organisations and non-governmental organisations have been protesting against the death sentence and have been petitioning the Governor and the President for commutation of the sentence, there is an equal number of outraged citizens who feel that the rapist-killer deserves to be hanged.

The celebrated film director Mrinal Sen told Frontline: "I have always been against capital punishment. The death penalty is a cruel and brutal practice. I am not saying this in defence of Dhananjoy Chatterjee. I have nothing but contempt for that man. But I am against any kind of brutality. Let him be punished for the rest of his life for what he has done. I feel extremely sad for parents, relatives and friends of the girl he killed. But brutality is not an answer to brutality."

Writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi said: "You cannot bring down the crime rate by awarding capital punishment." She feels that Dhananjoy should be given an opportunity to reform himself. But Meera Bhattacharjee, the Chief Minister's wife, feels that no mercy should be shown to Dhananjoy. Speaking at a debate on the issue, she made an emotional plea: "I have come here as a woman and the mother of a daughter. I know what the parents of Hetal Parekh have been going through for the past 14 years." Teary-eyed, she recounted with graphic details how the girl was mercilessly battered and raped and finally strangled with the rope of a swing that broke her voice box. "Can you still have thoughts of forgiving him?" she asked the gathering.

Although CPI(M) State secretary Anil Biswas is personally against the death sentence, he said, "At the same time we should not lose sight of the enormity and the gravity of Dhananjoy's crime."

Life imprisonment is all Dhananjoy wanted. He reportedly told the sentry guarding him the night before he was supposed to be hanged on June 25, "Look, my palm has no line of death, just a line of punishment."

According to various psychiatrists in Kolkata, Dhananjoy's behaviour and unruffled countenance as seen during the recent trial is that of an inveterate psychopath.

Consultant neuropsychiatrist Dr. Shiladitya Ray of Belle Vue clinic and Ruby General Hospital said: "I would expect any normal person to be a wreck by now. But his appearance and body language show that he is unrepentant and just doesn't care. For normal people such a situation brings about severe depression, absolute insomnia and food refusal, and psychomotor retardation. He has hardly shown any of these symptoms." According to him, for a "characterologic reformation" a stable baseline is a precondition. "History and precedence has shown that such people cannot be reformed," he said.

The fact that Dhananjoy's case had been scrutinised at all levels of the judiciary and went through the procedure for pardon only shows that it is in fact one of the rarest of rare cases in which capital punishment has been awarded.

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