The Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentence of three assassins of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to life imprisonment citing the 11-year delay on the part of the Centre in deciding their mercy plea.
The apex court rejected Centre's contention that delay in deciding mercy plea of convicts did not result in agony. A bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam pronounced the verdict, saying that the delay was not only inordinate but also unreasonable and unexplained.
"We implore the government to render advice in reasonable time to the President for taking a decision on mercy pleas," the SC said in its verdict. "We are confident that the mercy plea can be decided much faster than what is being done now."
The three convicts V Sriharan alias Murugan, T Suthendraraja alias Santhan and AG Perarivlan alias Arivu had pleaded for the commutation of their death sentences on grounds of inordinate delay in deciding their mercy petitions.
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Amnesty International said Tuesday's decision "shows the judiciary's willingness to uphold standards it set down for the treatment of prisoners on death row." Hangings are rare in India, with three in the last 18 years, though there are some 400 prisoners on death row in India.
The central government had opposed the plea saying that apex court's January 21 verdict, holding inordinate, unreasonable and unexplained delay in deciding the mercy petitions by president was a ground for seeking commutation of death sentence into life imprisonment was not applicable in their case.
Accepting the greetings, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan thanked the apex court, human rights activists, leaders of political parties and the state government which had sought the commutation of death penalty.
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Expressing happiness at the Supreme Court's decision to commute the death sentence of the three assassins of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, DMK president M. Karunanidhi urged the central and state governments to release them from jail.
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The convicts 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 verdict on their plea had earlier been reserved on Feb 4.
Attorney General GE Vahanvati had told the court that all through these 11 years, the three assassins were living a full life by holding music shows, art exhibitions and other recreational activities in the jail.
The government had said that during 11 years of their incarceration when their mercy petition was pending with the president, the three assassins suffered no agony, torture or dehumanizing situation.
Perarivalan topped a diploma examination and earned a gold medal in March 2013 in Desk Top Publishing Operator course, a vocational training programme, offered by the prison department in collaboration with the Mahatma Gandhi Community College and TN Open University.
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Senior counsel Yug Chaudhary who had appeared for the three assassins had argued that delay, per se, was torture. "There is hope that the convicts will walk out of jail. The remission will be decided by the state government of Tamil Nadu," Yug Chaudhary told NDTV outside the court. "It is time that the death penatlty is abolished in this country," he added.
Union minister Farooq Abdullah said the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru was "absolutely unjustified".
Mother of AG Perarivalan alias Arivu expressed her happiness at the Supreme Court's decision to commute her son's death sentence in the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's assassination case.
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Rajiv 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. Gandhi had become India's youngest ever prime minister after his mother, former premier Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984. He ruled until losing an election five years later.
The three were among 26 convicted of playing minor roles in the May 1991 assassination, but were the only ones left on death row after the others were released or had their sentences commuted earlier. They were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan-based separatist movement, which was wiped out by Sri Lankan forces in 2009.
They had denied knowing anything about the plot to kill Gandhi as he was campaigning in May 1991 for a return to the prime ministerial office. He was killed along with 17 others, including the female suicide assassin, as she greeted him with a garland of sandalwood beads and a bomb strapped to her chest during a rally in Sriperumbedur in Tamil Nadu.
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In August 2012, their mercy petitions were rejected but as the date of their execution was fixed, the Madras high court intervened and the execution of the death sentenced was stayed.
Subsequently on a plea by MDMK leader Vaiko, the matter before the Madras high court was transferred to the Supreme Court.
Murugan's wife Nalini was also sentenced to death but it was commuted to life on the intervention of Rajiv Gandhi's widow Sonia Gandhi.
On January 21 the Supreme Court gave a landmark judgement in capital punishment jurisprudence commuting death sentences of 15 convicts on the grounds of delay in the disposal of their mercy petitions by the President, and set out guidelines to protect the rights of condemned prisoners.
The pendency or the time lapse between the SC pronouncing capital punishment and the President deciding on the mercy petition has been 13 years in the case of Murugan, Arivu and Santhan. The three have served more than 20 years on death row in Vellore Prison, in southern Tamil Nadu state.
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Every death row sentence in India has to be confirmed by a high court. If the matter is filed before the SC and it upholds the order, a review petition can be filed. If the review petition also confirms capital punishment, the convict has the option of filing a curative petition before the SC. Filing a mercy petition before the governor or the president is the next stage.
Since assuming office in July 2012, President Pranab Mukherjee has rejected 13 mercy petitions involving 19 death row convicts. The fulcrum of the SC verdict is that undue, inordinate and unreasonable delay in the execution of a death sentence amounts to torture, which violates Article 21 and so qualifies as grounds for the commutation of the sentence.
The court ruled that even death-row prisoners are entitled to fundamental rights until their last breath. “Just as the death sentence is passed lawfully, the execution of the sentence must also be in consonance with the constitutional mandate and not in violation of the constitutional principles,” observed the court.
Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves said there is a flip side to the judgment. “We hope that post this verdict, there are no delays in the disposal of mercy petitions. But this also means that we are entering a dangerous territory where petitions may be decided upon in haste which may result in more executions,” he said.
"This judgment may be a victory from the legal point of view, but the real victory will be when the state decides to abolish capital punishment," he said when he spoke to Hindustan Times earlier.
(With IANS, PTI, AP and AFP inputs)