Explainer: The early release of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar

  • What does this mean? Did the Delhi government defer his release? What are the legal options for Bhullar? Is it normal for a case to be deferred by the Sentence Review Board? Here are all the answers:
Before the meeting is held, the government will probably check if SRB has the legal right to decide Bhullar’s case. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Before the meeting is held, the government will probably check if SRB has the legal right to decide Bhullar’s case. (HT Archive)
Updated on Mar 07, 2022 12:36 PM IST
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The decision to defer convict Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’s premature release from Delhi’s Tihar jail by the Sentence Review Board (SRB) on Tuesday led to sharp political reactions by different political parties. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) accused the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-led Delhi government of stalling Bhullar’s release. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, said they would approach the Supreme Court because the Delhi government was not releasing Bhullar because of their political compulsion.

But is this true?

In the run-up to the recently held assembly elections in Punjab, many groups had petitioned different political parties, particularly the AAP, for Bhullar’s release because Tihar jail comes under the administrative jurisdiction of the Delhi government.

On Tuesday, the seven-member SRB met to decide the cases of 28 prisoners. By the end of the day, the board decided (approved or rejected) 27 cases, while deferring the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar.

What does this mean? Did the AAP-led Delhi government defer his release? What are the legal options for Bhullar? Is it normal for a case to be deferred by the SRB?

Here is an easy explainer:

Who is Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar?

A-57 -year-old man, convicted of the 1993 Delhi bomb blasts case, in which 9 people died. He was part of the separatist outfit,  the Khalistan Liberation Force. He fled to Germany after the blast and later sought political asylum. He was extradited to India in 1995. Bhullar was convicted and sentenced to death in 2011. In March 2014, the Supreme Court commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment considering his ill health and a delay in the trial. Bhullar was transferred to a jail in Amritsar in 2015 and shifted to a mental health facility there. He has been in prison for at least 22 years.

What does defer mean in the context of the SRB?

When the SRB defers a case, then it means that the case will again be heard in the next SRB. It is different from the SRB rejecting the case. When the SRB rejects the release of a particular prisoner, the prisoner’s case will be discussed only six months after the last SRB meet. So, in Bhullar’s case, if the SRB decides to hold a meeting after two months, his case will be presented again.

When does a prisoner’s case get deferred?

There are seven members in the Sentence Review Board (SRB), who vote for or against a prisoner’s release. The release is either approved or denied after counting the votes. Cases often get deferred when members neither approve nor deny a prisoner’s release. In the past, it has happened in the cases of Jessica Lal murder convict, Manu Sharma, and also former Congress leader Sushil Sharma, who was convicted for killing his wife Naina Sharma in what became infamous as Delhi’s Tandoor case.

Why was Bhullar’s release deferred?

In the case of Bhullar, the case was deferred for a different reason. When the voting started — four members disapproved of Bhullar’s release. But the state home minister, Satyendar Jain told the board that Bhullar ought to be released. He informed the board that the direction of the Centre to the Delhi government to give special remission to Bhullar was binding on the state government. This had to be done under Article 161 of the Constitution. He said the central government had written a letter to the Delhi chief secretary in 2019 about granting special remission so the Delhi government was duty-bound to release the prisoner. Jain said they have to examine if the SRB has the legal right to decide Bhullar’s case because the Centre has already asked for his release.

Who are members of the seven-member SRB board?

The seven-member SRB is headed by the Delhi home minister as its chairperson and has six other members — Tihar’s director-general, Delhi’s home secretary, Delhi’s law secretary, a district judge, a senior Delhi police officer, and the director of the Delhi social welfare department.

Did the AAP-led Delhi government scuttle Bhullar’s release?

Apparently, this is untrue. On Tuesday, when the first four members of the seven-member board voted against Bhullar’s release, his case would have been in the rejected category making him ineligible for release for 6 months. But senior AAP leader Satyendar Jain, also home minister and chairperson of the SRB informed the board about the Centre’s letter. So, the matter was not decided on Tuesday.

What happens next?

Bhullar’s case could be decided in the next board meeting. He could also be released before the next SRB meeting is held. Before the meeting is held, the government will probably check if SRB has the legal right to decide Bhullar’s case. If the legal opinion is that SRB does not have such a right then the Delhi government will be duty-bound to release him.

What other options does Bhullar have?

His counsels could approach the court. In the case of former Delhi Congress youth president, Sushil Sharma, the Delhi High Court had released him after the SRB deferred his case. in that case, the HC observed that Sharma had spent the maximum time in prison. In the case of Jessica Lal killer, Manu Sharma, when the SRB had deferred his case, and Sharma approached the Delhi High Court, the court had directed the SRB to decide the case and not postpone it. Sharma was later released by the board in the next meeting after the High Court's directions.

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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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