Death penalty

Last-minute reprieve

Print edition : March 22, 2013

This June 19, 1993, photo shows Veerappan aides Simon (front row, second from left) and others accused in the landmine blast case who were arrested after an encounter by the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force Police. Photo: PTI

The death-row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case-Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. Photo: TheHindu

The Supreme Court stays the hanging of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan’s associates on the grounds that a pending verdict in a similar case may have a bearing on their mercy petitions.

ON February 17, human rights activists opposed to the secret execution of death sentences had a harrowing time trying to stop the hanging of four associates of the slain forest brigand Veerappan at the Belgaum Central Jail in Karnataka. They feared that the four convicts—Simon, Gnanprakasam, Madaiah and Bilavendran—whose mercy petitions had been rejected by the President on February 12 would be hanged on the morning of February 18.

The four were convicted and sentenced to death for laying and triggering landmines, which had resulted in the death of 21 persons, besides causing injuries to 14 personnel belonging to the police forces of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, on April 9, 1993, at the Sorakai Maduvu forest in Karnataka.

The jail officials refused to allow the prisoners’ lawyers to meet them to get their signatures on the vakalatnama authorising them to file writ petitions on their behalf challenging the President’s rejection of their mercy pleas.

Meanwhile, the prison authorities had reportedly begun making preparations to execute the death sentences.

Concerned over the situation, Shamik Narain, an advocate in the Supreme Court, demanded that an urgent hearing of the public interest petition he had filed seeking a stay on the hangings be held at the residence of the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Altamas Kabir, in New Delhi. The CJI, having found out from the authorities that the hangings were not imminent as feared, directed that the PIL petition be listed for hearing in due course. However, the following day, the Bench comprising CJI Kabir and Justices Anil R. Dave and Vikramajit Sen not only issued a stay on the hangings but directed that the Superintendent of the Central Jail in Belgaum be informed accordingly.

When the hearing of the case resumed on February 20, the four convicts were joined in Narain’s petition. They pleaded that they were entitled to commutation of their death sentences to life imprisonment on account of the delay of nine years in adjudicating their mercy petitions. The Bench stayed their hanging for six weeks in order to enable another Bench, comprising Justices G.S. Singhvi and Sudhansu Jyoti Mukhopadhaya, which had reserved orders in the cases involving other death-row convicts who had made similar pleas to deliver its judgment.

The Singhvi-Mukhopadhaya Bench first heard Devender Pal Singh Bhullar’s writ petition against the rejection of his mercy petition by the President. Later, it agreed to consider an appeal filed by Mahendra Nath Das against the dismissal of his writ petition by the Gauhati High Court. Das, like Bhullar, had raised the grounds of inordinate delay in rejecting his mercy petition to seek commutation of the death sentence against him.

The Bench also transferred to itself on May 1 the pending writ petitions filed by Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan in the Madras High Court. Convicted and sentenced to death in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, they had also relied on the inordinate delay in rejecting their mercy petitions as the reason to plead commutation of the death sentence. While the Singhvi Bench heard Bhullar and Das, it is yet to hear the transferred petitions in the Rajiv Gandhi case. Justice Singhvi reserved his judgment in the Bhullar and Das cases on April 19, 2012. According to observers, the Singhvi Bench is likely to pronounce its judgment in these cases, even before hearing the petitions of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi case.

The CJI-led Bench observed on February 20: “Since there is always a possibility of conflict of decisions, in the event this matter is heard by this Bench separately, in our view, the proper course of action would be to adjourn the hearing of this matter further, till a decision is rendered by the other Bench in the pending cases.”

In its judgment transferring the petitions of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi case to the Supreme Court, the Singhvi Bench said on May 1, 2012: “In our opinion, that question [whether long delay in the decision of the mercy petitions entitles the convicts to seek commutation] is of substantial general importance and decision thereof is likely to affect large number of persons who have been convicted by the competent courts and sentenced to death and whose mercy petitions have remained pending for years together.” Despite this clear observation, and collection of all details relating to the pending mercy petitions, the Singhvi Bench did not restrain the Central government from carrying out the death sentences, if the President rejected the mercy petitions before it delivered its judgment.

The February 20 interim order of the CJI-led Bench, however, shows that it is incumbent upon the government to defer executions that are scheduled after delayed rejection of mercy petitions until the Singhvi Bench delivers its judgment. In retrospect, it is clear that the government sought to pre-empt the courts’ intervention when it secretly executed Afzal Guru, the main accused in the Parliament House attack case, on February 9. It sought to carry out the death sentence of Saibanna, another death-row convict at the Belgaum jail, after belatedly rejecting his mercy petition, until the Karnataka High Court intervened to stay the hanging.

In their petition, the four Veerappan associates submitted that since they had already undergone imprisonment for almost 20 years, including nine years after the death sentence was awarded, an unreasonable delay in adjudicating their mercy pleas would attract the vice of dual punishment (long imprisonment and death), not contemplated by the Supreme Court’s judgment, enhancing the life sentences imposed on them by the TADA (Terrorists and Disruptive [Prevention] Activities Act) trial court to death sentences.

Meanwhile, former Supreme Court judge K.T. Thomas, who had confirmed the death sentence of Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, said on February 24 that it would be “constitutionally incorrect” to hang them now as they had already spent 22 years in jail without a “review” of their case. He admitted that the three-judge Bench which decided the case had not considered the nature and character of the accused as required by the Constitution Bench judgment in the Bachan Singh case. This admission is sure to strengthen the plea for a moratorium on carrying out death sentences until the government makes a comprehensive review of the death penalty jurisprudence.