NEW DELHI: The hanging early Saturday of an Indian man who raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl sparked off a national debate about capital punishment and the obvious failings of a criminal justice system that kept the man on death row for 13 years.

A little before sunrise on his birthday, Dhananjay Chatterjee walked to his death wearing a new set of clothes.

"I am reconciled to my hanging. Let me be led respectably to the gallows and not be forced along. I will not resist," he told jail officials in eastern Calcutta city.

Chatterjee prayed for half an hour, as his favourite devotional songs played in the background. He smashed his radio, his only link to the outside world in more than a decade. "Its work is over. I will not need it any longer."

A former security guard, he had been sentenced to death in August 1991 for the brutal murder and rape of eighth-grade student Hetal Parekh in her home. But the West Bengal state government simply forgot to hang him. His case was discovered last November by law department officials who were reviewing old files.

Lawyers claimed his "long and unreasonable" incarceration was grounds enough for the Supreme Court - the highest court of appeal in the country - to commute his sentence to life imprisonment, as he had already been punished enough. However, his mercy petitions were rejected by President APJ Abdul Kalam on August 4 and the Supreme Court on Thursday.

In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty should be handed down only in the "rarest of rare" cases, implying that the judge - there are no jury trials in India - must be compelled by exceptional circumstances to take such a decision.

As there is no definition of or clear guidelines on what constitutes "rarest of rare", the death sentence depends largely on the judge's interpretation.

"In the end it is a subjective analysis, although the court listed some factors to determine whether a case can be considered "rarest of rare": whether murder was caused by torture, whether the crime involved total depravity, magnitude (multiple murders), personality of the victim (helpless child, old or infirm person)," said advocate Vijay Shankardass.

In India, death is the punishment for various crimes including murder, abetting a child's suicide, waging war against the government, terrorist acts or a second conviction for drug trafficking.

As on June 2004, 118 countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practise. Of these, 80 abolished it for all crimes, 15 for all but exceptional crimes like war crimes and 23 have it in law but have not practised it for at least a decade.

While recognizing the need to combat violent crime, Amnesty International India said "there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments".

"The death penalty is an inherently unjust and arbitrary punishment, however heinous the crime for which it is inflicted," it said.

Studies show that most of those executed in India are illiterate, poor and vulnerable. The Asian Human Rights Commission expressed concern that "the Indian justice system is regressing into feudal practises of retributive punishment delivered by the rich and powerful against the poor and defenceless".

Chatterjee couldn't afford a good lawyer. His parents sold most of their land to fight a protracted legal battle. "I would like to be reborn as a rich man as justice favours only the rich," he said.

In 1982, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence of a man convicted for raping and murdering a two-year-old girl.

Justice PN Bhagwati, the only dissenting judge, observed: "The death sentence has a certain class complexion or class bias as it is largely the poor and the downtrodden who are victims of this extreme penalty."

"We would hardly find a rich or affluent person going to the gallows," he added.

Chatterjee's execution also brought into focus the use of the primitive method of hanging, which contrary to popular belief about its quickness, is usually a gruesome and long ordeal.

This year, India's Law Commission recommended that hanging be replaced by "something more humane and more painless" like lethal injection.

After studying various methods of execution it concluded that hanging involves immense pain, can take up to 40 minutes and causes mutilation. An injection takes 5-9 minutes to kill.

Many in India question if Chatterjee should have been hanged after all this time. His lawyers claimed the conviction was based on circumstantial evidence.

No DNA tests were carried out to link him with either the rape or the murder. The state did not provide any evidence to prove he continued to be a threat to society.

On his last night Friday Chatterjee reportedly told his warders: "The best years of my life I have spent within the confines of a cell when I could have done so much more with it. I still believe I would have lived had my case been handled properly."-dpa

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