Setting a precedent for all death row convicts whose mercy petitions have been pending for long, the Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentence of three condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case to life imprisonment, citing the delay of 11 years. A bench headed by Chief Justice of India
P Sathasivam rejected the Centre’s submission that there was no unreasonable delay in deciding their mercy plea and the condemned prisoners did not go through agonising experience as they were enjoying life behind bars.
The bench said it was unable to accept the Centre’s view and commuted the death sentence of convicts Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan to imprisonment for life, subject to remission by the government. “Exorbitant delay in disposal of mercy petition renders the process of execution of death sentence arbitrary, whimsical and capricious and, therefore, inexecutable... Such imprisonment, occasioned by inordinate delay in disposal of mercy petitions, is beyond the sentence accorded by the court and to that extent is extra-legal and excessive,” it observed.
Asking the authorities concerned to expedite the procedure of mercy petitions, the court ruled: “The apex constitutional authorities must exercise the power under Article 72/161 within the bounds of constitutional discipline and should dispose of mercy petitions filed before them in an expeditious manner.” “Regardless and independent of the suffering it causes, delay makes the process of execution of death sentence unfair, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious and thereby, violates procedural due process guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and the dehumanizing effect is presumed in such cases.”
“This Court has consistently held that prolonged delay in execution of death sentence... gives rise to mental suffering and agony which renders the... execution of death sentence inhuman and barbaric. Such a prerequisite would render... rights guaranteed under... the Constitution beyond the reach of death-row convicts and will make them nugatory and inaccessible for all intent and purposes,” said the 20-page judgment.