The right to life is sacrosanct. This is the message from the Supreme Court which on Tuesday commuted the death sentence of three convicts — Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan — in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The court rightly stated that an “inordinate and unreasonable” delay in the disposal of the mercy petitions of the convicts rendered the “process of execution of death sentence arbitrary, whimsical and capricious and, therefore, inexecutable”. The verdict is also proof that the judiciary’s outlook is in keeping with the international call for doing away with the death sentence or awarding it only in the ‘rarest of rare cases’ where there is irrefutable evidence.
After the Tamil Nadu governor had rejected the trio’s mercy petitions in April 2000, the ministry of home affairs submitted the mercy petitions for the President’s consideration in July 2005 — after a delay of more than five years. Finally, in September 2011 the President rejected their mercy petitions but by then the convicts had waited for agonising 11 long years. The apex court’s observation that a “mercy plea can be decided at much faster speed than what is being done now” is spot on and has been proved by the Centre, as in the hanging to death of Afzal Guru. Guru was convicted for the 2001 Parliament attack and in 2002 he was sentenced to death. In February 9, 2013, six days after the President rejected his mercy plea, Guru was hanged to death in a stealthy manner. Here all the systems came in to place and a decision was taken within a ‘reasonable time’.
While the apex court’s decision to commute the death sentence of the three to life is understandable, the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to seek the release all the seven convicts in the case is questionable. The AIADMK government, in its hurry to score a political point over its rivals, should not overlook the gravity of the crime. These seven people have been convicted for murder — in this case no less than the assassination of a former prime minister. Political parties should refrain from trying to make capital out of this issue to reap benefits in an election year. This sends a wrong signal and obscures the laudable objective of setting aside the death penalty.