The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld its ruling that inordinate delay in execution of death convicts can be a ground for commuting the sentence to life.
A three-judge panel headed by Chief Justice of India Palanisamy Sathasivam had on January 21 commuted sentences of 15 death row convicts, ruling that the "inordinate and inexplicable delay is a ground for commuting death penalty to life sentence".
Human rights lawyers hailed a decision which puts strict new conditions on carrying out the death penalty, and could dramatically reduce its use.
A total of 15 people had challenged their death sentences on the grounds of delay due to the time taken for the president to answer their mercy petitions. Petitioners include notorious sandalwood smuggler Veerappan aides--- Meesekar Madaiah, Gnanaprakash, Simon and Bilavendran--- and Haryana couple Sonia and Sanjiv who were sentenced to death for killing 13 of their relatives.
The judgment is expected to affect more convicts, including Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar from Punjab, who was convicted over a New Delhi car bombing that killed nine people in 1993, and Rajiv Gandhi's assassins Murugan, Arivu and Santhan.
The court had also said that there cannot be any distinction whether a person on death row was convicted on charges of terror or otherwise in entertaining their petition.
The constitution bench said the president and the governor, while deciding mercy petitions were not exercising any prerogative but were discharging their constitutional obligation and even a death row convict has a de factor right.
In another landmark decision that will ensure that there was no repeat of the Afzal Guru like execution, the court had said that there has to be 14 days gap between the communication of rejection of mercy petition to the convict and his family members and actual execution of the death sentence.
The court had said these 14 days are necessary for the convict to come to terms with the reality, to make peace with God, to execute his will and also have the opportunity to meet his family members for the last time.
The court had clarified that delays needed to be "inordinate" and "inexplicable", but it also said that mental illness such as schizophrenia and the use of solitary confinement could make a convict eligible for a reduced sentence.