The Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted to life imprisonment the death penalty for three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, after dismissing the government’s appeal that the 11-year delay in deciding their mercy petitions did not entitle them to pardon.
A bench led by Chief Justice P Sathasivam held that it was “indisputable” that the delay in deciding the mercy plea was “inordinate and unreasonable”, and had not been caused by the convicts, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan.
“Accordingly, the unreasonable delay caused qualifies as the supervening circumstance, which warrants for commutation of sentence of death into life imprisonment… Exorbitant delay in disposal of mercy petition renders the process of execution of death sentence arbitrary, whimsical and capricious and, therefore, inexecutable,” the bench, also comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and S K Singh, said.
The court left it open for the Tamil Nadu government to grant remission to the convicts under its executive powers — an especially sensitive decision ahead of the elections. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who had in 2011 ensured that the Tamil Nadu assembly passed a resolution demanding commutation of the sentences, did not react on Tuesday.
But former chief minister M Karunanidhi issued a statement in Chennai saying he was “immensely happy” at the verdict, and would be “doubly happy” if they were released. MDMK leader Vaiko said that in light of the “historic judgment”, the state government “should consider the release of all the three (convicts)”.
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The Supreme Court based its judgment on last month’s landmark verdict by a constitution bench which ruled that inordinate, unreasonable and unexplained delay was a ground for commutation of death penalty.
Referring to this verdict, the bench on Tuesday said that prolonged incarceration awaiting disposal of mercy plea was “extra-legal and excessive” and hence, the “apex constitutional authorities” (President and Governor) should dispose of such petitions in an expeditious manner.
The bench rejected Attorney General G E Vahanvati’s argument that the prolonged incarceration had had no de-humanising effect on the convicts, who had rather “enjoyed” and lived a “meaningful prison social life”.
It also dismissed his contention that the trio were under legal obligation to produce evidence of their suffering on account of the delay.
Pointing to the several reminders sent by the convicts to the President seeking speedy disposal of their mercy petitions, the court said the executive should exercise its power of clemency one way or the other within a reasonable time.
“We are confident that the mercy petitions filed under Article 72/161 can be disposed of at a much faster pace than what is adopted now, if the due procedure prescribed by law is followed in verbatim… We implore the government to render its advice to the President within a reasonable time so that the President is in a position to arrive at a decision at the earliest,” the court said.
It also recommended to the government that it should add ‘delay’ as a ground for commutation in its circular laying down the conditions for deciding mercy petitions.
Rajiv was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber while on election campaign in Tamil Nadu’s Sriperumbudur in May 1991. Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan were members of the LTTE. They were convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. Nalini, the fourth convict, was given the same sentence, which was commuted to life in 2000.
Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan appealed for mercy, but successive presidents gave no decision until 2011, when their plea was finally rejected.