The Supreme Court on Friday referred the matter to a Constitution bench to decide whether the Centre or the Tamil Nadu government had the authority to release the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case after remission of their jail terms.
A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice P Sathasivam said that the issue as to which was the “appropriate government” in law and as to whether power of remission can be exercised at all should be decided by a larger bench. A Constitution bench comprises at least five judges.
The court framed seven questions of law in the matter and directed the case to be listed before a Constitution bench within three months.
“This is a matter of utmost critical concern for the whole of the country as it will determine the procedure cor awarding punishments under the criminal justice system,” said the court.
It has asked the Tamil Nadu government to maintain a status quo with respect to releasing the convicts, as per the state’s resolution of February.
The court was adjudicating the Centre’s challenge to the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to release the convicts in the assassination case.
The Centre had moved a substantive writ petition, challenging the Tamil Nadu government’s resolution to set all the seven convicts free. The SC had earlier commuted the death sentence to the life term for the three convicts, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, after noting there was inexplicable delay in deciding their mercy petitions by the President.
While issuing notices to the state government and the convicts in February, the bench had ordered status quo and fixed it for hearing to decide the legal issue as to whether the Centre or the Tamil Nadu was the “appropriate government” to take final call on release of convicts
The Centre’s petition has challenged the Tamil Nadu government’s resolution to remit the remaining jail terms of all the seven convicts and the communication sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs for consultation.
It contended that the “appropriate government,” as stipulated under the Code of Criminal Procedure, was the central government in this case and hence it had the sole power of remission of sentence.
The Centre also said that Tamil Nadu government’s decision was in derogation of rights of the victims, who lost their kin in the blast that claimed as many as 18 innocent lives.
It said that the state was not protecting the right of the victims at the cost of “selectively” choosing these seven convicts for remission of their jail terms and that it was also against the fundamental right to equality, besides in breach of the right to life of victims.
However, the Tamil Nadu government claimed it had all the authority under the law to remit the jail terms of the convicts.
Replying to the Centre’s petition, the state has said that it was well within its jurisdiction and powers under the Code of Criminal Procedure to decide on the remission and that the central government’s view was sought on the contentious resolution as a customary process.
Tamil Nadu government has also questioned the maintainability of the Centre’s petition, contending they were supposed to furnish their opinion of the state’s resolution instead of rushing to the Supreme Court by filing a writ petition.