Indian president defends record death row pardons

India's outgoing president has defended herself against media criticism that she went on a "mercy overdrive" during her term by granting clemency to nearly three dozen convicts on death row.

Pratibha Patil, who became India's first woman president in 2007 and leaves office next month, commuted 35 death sentences to life imprisonment during her five years in the post -- more than any other head of state before her.

The Indian media has generally been critical of her record on the issue, questioning why clemency was deemed appropriate in some cases involving murder, rape and child abduction.

"President Pratibha Patil goes on mercy overdrive," was the verdict of the Times of India, while the Mail Today questioned her motives.

"In her apparent overzealousness to come across as the apostle of mercy, she appears to have glossed over some gruesome details," it said.

In a statement issued by her office late Monday, Patil defended her choices, insisting she "took well considered decisions" after taking the advice of the home minister.

"A queer pitch has been created as though many brutal criminals have been shown mercy and released," the statement said. "The President is discharging a constitutional obligation and not doling out generosity."

India has hundreds of condemned convicts awaiting execution, including the killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and Pakistani national Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

A complex and lengthy appeal process means those sentenced to capital punishment often sit on death row for many years. In most cases the death penalty is commuted to life imprisonment.

India's last execution was in 2004, when a former security guard was hanged for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl.

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