The Supreme Court commuted sentences of 15 death row convicts on Tuesday, ruling that “inordinate and inexplicable” delays in their execution were grounds to change their sentences to life imprisonment.
Human rights lawyers hailed a decision which puts strict new conditions on carrying out the death penalty, and could dramatically reduce its use.
“Unexplained delay is a ground for commuting death penalty to life sentence,” read a ruling from a three-judge panel headed by Chief Justice Palanisamy Sathasivam.
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 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 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 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 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 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.
"No death row convict can be kept in solitary confinement and it is unconstitutional," it said.
The country has more than four hundred people on death row but has carried out only three executions in the last decade.
"This is a landmark judgment that will inch India closer to abolishing the death penalty altogether," Asian Centre for Human Rights director Suhas Chakma said.
India would probably continue to execute those prisoners convicted of crimes relating to national security, he said.
"But 90% of the others have been convicted of murder and rape, and these people cannot all be executed," he said.
Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network, told CNN-IBN: "I can't tell you how overjoyed I am, how happy I am."
The country had an informal eight-year moratorium on executions until November 2012, when it put to death Ajmal Kasab, a gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Guru, a militant convicted for his role in an attack on Parliament in 2001, was executed in February last year after his appeal for clemency was rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee.
Mukherjee, who took office in July 2012, has signalled a hard line on the death penalty by regularly dismissing mercy pleas — unlike his three predecessors.
• Condemned prisoners must be given a chance to meet their family members before execution of death sentence
• Legal aid be provided inside jail to the condemned prisoners
• Death convict and his family members must be informed after his mercy plea is rejected by the President or governor
• There should be atime gap of 14 days between dismissal of his mercy petition and hanging of a convict
• Solitary confinement of a death convict and other prisoners is unconstitutional
• Death sentence of a condemned prisoner cannot be executed if he is suffering from mental illness and schizophrenia