The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved its verdict on the plea of three death row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case seeking commutation of their sentence to life imprisonment, which was vehemently opposed by the Centre.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief justice P Sathasivam reserved the order after hearing the arguments of counsel appearing for the convicts - Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan - and attorney general GE Vahanvati who represented the central government.
Vahanvati contended that it was not a fit case for the apex court to commute death sentence on the ground of delay in deciding their mercy pleas.
The AG admitted that there has been a delay in deciding, but he contended that the delay was not unreasonable, unexplainable and unconscionable to commute death penalty.
Read: 'Rajiv Gandhi case convicts deserve death sentence'
He further submitted that the SC's recent verdict, holding that inordinate and inexplicable delay can be ground for commutation, is not applicable in this case as the condemned prisoners did not have to go through agony, torture and dehumanising experience.
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 term 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.
The counsel, appearing for the convicts, opposed the arguments of Vahanvati, saying that they have suffered due to the delay by the government in deciding their mercy petitions and the apex court should intervene and commute their death sentence to life term.
The convicts, in their petition, 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 SC had in May 2012 decided to adjudicate the petitions of the killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi against their death penalty and had directed that their plea, pending with the Madras high court, be sent to it.
The apex court had passed the order on a petition by 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.
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.
Read: SC commutes death sentence of 15 convicts