In a major relief for two Kolhapur sisters whose mercy pleas were recently rejected by the President, the Bombay high court on Wednesday stayed their execution till disposal of their petition seeking commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment.
Admitting the petition of Renuka Shinde and Anjana Gavit, a division bench of the court also directed the Centre and Maharashtra government to explain within three weeks the reasons for the delay in deciding their mercy petitions.
Observing that the high court had powers under Article 226 of the Constitution to entertain the plea of the sisters who kidnapped children, made them beg and commit petty crimes before killing them, Justices V M Kanade and P D Kode ruled the petition was maintainable.
The court posted the next hearing on September 9 after the state government assured it will not go ahead with the execution of the death sentence awarded to the duo till the time their plea was decided.
"Until such time, the death sentence would be kept in abeyance," the court ruled.
Shinde and Gavit have in their petition contended that the President had taken more than five years to decide their mercy petitions when such a plea should have been disposed of within three months.
On this ground alone, their death sentence may be commuted to life term, the duo prayed.
The two sisters were sentenced to death in 2001 for kidnapping 13 children and killing nine of them between 1990 and October 1996. They were assisted in the crime by their mother Anjana Gavit and Renuka's husband Kiran Shinde. Anjana died in custody, while Kiran turned an approver.
They used to force the children to beg, commit petty thefts and pickpocketing. The children were starved to force them to commit crimes. After having sufficiently used the children in crime, they brutally banged their head against the wall and killed them.
The sisters, who could be the first women convicts to be sent to the gallows since Independence are lodged in Pune's Yerwada prison and were recently informed about the President's decision rejecting their mercy petitions. The 14-day buffer period before execution expired on August 16.
The sisters argued through their lawyer Sudeep Jaiswal that they have been living in constant fear of death for more than 13 years since the time the Bombay High Court confirmed their death sentence and the Supreme Court upheld it.
"The extraordinary and unjustified delay in execution of our death sentence has caused immense mental torture, emotional and physical agony to us," they said in their petition.
The petitioners have said since they have "suffered immensely", in the "interest of justice and good conscience" their death sentence may be commuted to life imprisonment.
The sisters argued that several cases have been decided by the Supreme Court and various high courts wherein for similar or lesser period of delay, the courts have commuted the sentence of death to life imprisonment.
They further prayed that they are women and were very young when the offences were committed. When the killings commenced, Renuka Shinde was 25-years-old and Seema Gavit was aged 19. At the time of the commission of offences, Renuka was also a mother of four children.
The sisters said their father had abandoned them and their mother during their childhood and were left to fend for themselves.
The petitioners said they were leading a peaceful and orderly life in prison which showed they were concerned about social, physical and emotional well being of others and did not constitute a threat to society. The sisters said they have demonstrated that they were capable of leading a normal life.
They argued that their conduct in prison should be taken into account while considering their plea for commutation of death sentence.
The sisters submitted that the Supreme Court has held that unexplained delay in execution of the death sentence causes suffering, mental agony and trauma. This is violative of Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the constitution as it is cruel and therefore inconsistent with constitutional values, they said.