Supreme Court judge Justice Markandeya Katju has made a personal appeal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to release on "humanitarian grounds" Khalil Chishty, an elderly Pakistani virologist in Indian prison since 1992.
The move by the judge did not appear to go down well with the main opposition party BJP which found as "odd" the appeal to free 80-year-old Chishty, a murder convict.
"It is odd that an SC judge is writing to the PM for securing the release of a Pakistani prisoner, even in his individual capacity," BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
Katju expressed the fear that if Chishty is not released forthwith, he may die in the jail by the time his appeal is decided by the Rajasthan high court.
In an e-mail sent to the Prime Minister through Member of Parliament Rajiv Shukla, Justice Katju said Singh should grant pardon to Chishty under Article 72 which empowers the President to sanction pardon or remission for convicts.
"It will be a disgrace four our country if he(Chishty) dies in jail...if a pardon is granted it will enhance the prestige of India," the judge said.
In an unprecedented step earlier this year, Justice Katju, who was heading a Bench, passed an order, on a writ petition, requesting Pakistani authorities to consider the appeal of Indian prisoner Gopal Dass and release him on humanitarian grounds by remitting his jail term.
In 2010, Chishty was awarded life sentence under 302 IPC in a murder case by a sessions court in Rajasthan after an 18-year trial. He had filed an appeal in the high court but his bail plea had been rejected.
During the trial period, the sessions court while granting him bail had ordered Chishty not to leave Ajmer. He was re-arrested after his conviction.
In his letter, Justice Katju said, "I am making this appeal to you not as a Supreme Court judge, but as a human being, requesting for release of Dr Khalil Chishty, a Pakistani national, who is old and infirm and (is) in Ajmer jail, on humanitarian grounds under Article 72 of the Constitution."
Chishty, who was an eminent Professor of Virology in Karachi Medical College, holds a PhD from Edinburgh University.
During a visit to Ajmer in 1992 to meet his ailing mother, there was a dispute between his family in Ajmer and certain others in which a person was killed following which Chishty was also arrested.
Referring to Chishty's appeal in the high court, Justice Katju said, "One does not know when the appeal will be heard, and in the meantime Dr Chishty may die in jail since he is so old that he has to be physically carried.
"He is also a heart patient and has (suffered) a hip fracture. It will be a disgrace for our country if he dies in jail."
The apex court judge, however, cautioned that he was not commenting anything on the merits of the case as it is a judicial proceeding.
"However, apart from the judicial proceeding there is executive power in the President and the Governor to grant pardon," the judge said.
According to Justice Katju, eminent film producer/director Mahesh Bhatt and others have already appealed to the President under Article 72 of the Constitution, as well as to the Governor of Rajasthan under Article 161 to grant a pardon, so that he may spend the last days of his life in his home in Karachi.
"I join them in this appeal. The relevant papers are with home minister P Chidambaram," he said.