India: Stop the Arbitrary Execution of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar
On April 15 and 16, 2013, a coalition of U.S.-based organizations wrote to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, urging them to call on the Government of India to halt the imminent execution of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar. The letters were signed by Ensaaf, Jakara Movement, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sikh Coalition, Sikh Research Institute, United Sikhs, and Voices For Freedom.
The letters were issued in response to the April 12, 2013 decision by the Indian Supreme Court, denying Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar's petition to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment. This denial cleared the way for Bhullar's execution and ended a 20-year legal battle.
From 1984 to 1995, Indian security forces engaged in systematic human rights violations in the state of Punjab, India, as part of counterinsurgency operations aimed at crushing a violent self-determination movement. During this time, the police abducted, tortured, and disappeared Bhullar's father, uncle, and friend.
In 1993, Bhullar, a Mechanical Engineer and former lecturer, was accused of conspiring to bomb the office of a political party in India, killing 9 people. In 1994, he escaped to Germany and claimed political asylum. The German government deported Bhullar in 1995, although a German court subsequently deemed the deportation illegal because of fears that Bhullar would face torture and execution.
In India, Bhullar was charged under the draconian and now-lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. TADA allows special courts that admit confessions procured by police and secret witnesses. Amnesty International reported that Bhullar was not given access to his attorney. In Bhullar's case, the Delhi police extracted a confession under duress, which Bhullar later retracted. In August 2001, the TADA court sentenced Bhullar to death based solely on that confession. All of the prosecution's 133 witnesses failed to identify Bhullar.
In 2002, in a 2-1 split decision, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence, stating that proof "beyond reasonable doubt" should be a "guideline, not a fetish," and that procedure is only "a handmaiden and not the mistress of law." The presiding judge dissented, arguing that Bhullar was not guilty and should be acquitted. This was the first time the Supreme Court handed down a death sentence with the senior judge dissenting.
For the past 18 years, Bhullar has been detained in appalling conditions, including solitary confinement. He has been receiving treatment at a psychiatric facility for mental illness.
As Amnesty International reported last week, "In the past five months, India has executed two … individuals," after an 8-year hiatus. The joint letters highlight the presence of reasonable doubt and the failure of India to respect basic international norms of due process, which call into question the legality of Bhullar's prolonged detention and death sentence. The Supreme Court's decision exposes the significant risks of arbitrariness in India's judicial system, and underscores why the death penalty must be eliminated all together.