In a major relief to three condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted their death sentence to life imprisonment, holding that the 11-year long delay in deciding their mercy petition had a dehumanising effect on them.
A bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam said that the delay was not only inordinate but also unreasonable and unexplained.
The court said that life imprisonment would mean life in jail till end.
The bench, also comprising justices Ranjan Gogoi and SK Singh, rejected the contentions advanced by Attorney General GE Vahanvati on behalf of the central government.
The court said that though there is no time limit given in deciding the mercy petition by the President, but it was incumbent upon the government to decide the same at the earliest.
It rejected the Centre’s submission that there was no unreasonable delay in deciding their mercy plea and the condemned prisoners did not go through agonising experience as they were enjoying life behind the bars.
The bench said they are unable to accept the Centre’s view and commuted the death sentence of convicts – V Sriharan alias Murugan, AG Perarivlan alias Arivu and T Suthendraraja alias Santhan – to imprisonment for life subject to remission by the government.
It asked the Centre to give timely advice to the President so that mercy petitions can be decided without unreasonable delay.
“We implore the government to render advice in reasonable time to the President,” the bench said, adding that “the executive should exercise its power one way or other in reasonable time”.
It said the government should handle the cases of mercy petitions in a more systematised manner. “We are confident that mercy plea can be decided at much faster speed than what is being done now,” the bench said.
While rejecting the government’s contention that it was incumbent upon the death row convicts to prove that they have suffered torture and dehumanisation during the pendency of the mercy petition, the court said there is nothing in Indian law and international law that puts the burden of proving torture and dehumanising condition on the death row convicts.
Gandhi was killed in 1991. His assassins were convicted by a TADA court in January 1998 and were awarded death sentence, which was confirmed by the apex court on May 11, 1999.
The three assassins sought the commutation of their death sentence to life imprisonment on account of the inordinate delay of nearly 11 years in deciding their mercy petitions.
The bench had reserved its verdict on February 4.
Their plea was strongly opposed by the Centre which had said that it was not a fit case for the apex court to commute death sentence on the ground of delay in deciding mercy plea.
Admitting that there has been delay in deciding the mercy petitions, the government, however, had contended that the delay was not unreasonable, unexplainable and unconscionable to commute death penalty.
The convicts’ counsel had contested the Centre’s arguments, saying they have suffered due to the delay and the apex court should intervene and commute their death sentence to life term.
The convicts had submitted that mercy plea of other condemned prisoners, which were filed after them, were decided but their petitions were kept pending by the government.
The apex court had in May 2012 decided to adjudicate the petitions of Rajiv Gandhi killers against their death penalty and had directed that their plea, pending with the Madras High Court, be sent to it.
The court had passed the order on a petition by one LK Venkat, seeking transfer of their plea out of Tamil Nadu on the ground that free and fair hearing would not be possible in the state due to the surcharged atmosphere in favour of the convicts.
The Madras High Court had earlier stayed their hanging slated for September 9, 2011 and issued notice to the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government.
Their main contention was that the delay of 11 years and four months in disposal of the mercy petitions made the execution of the death sentence “unduly harsh and excessive”, amounting to violation of their right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The apex court had on January 21 ruled that delay by the government in deciding mercy plea of death row convicts can be a ground for commuting their sentence and had granted life imprisonment to 15 condemned prisoners, including four aides of forest brigand Veerappan.
The court had held that prolonging execution of capital sentence has a “dehumanising effect” on condemned prisoners who have to face the “agony” of waiting for years under the shadow of death during the pendency of their mercy plea.