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SC invokes Kalam to give Das life term

- Patil was kept in the dark, says apex court

New Delhi, May 2: The Supreme Court yesterday commuted Assam’s death row convict Mahendra Nath Das sentence to life term, saying the Union home ministry had withheld from former President Pratibha Patil the fact that her predecessor A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had accepted Das’s mercy plea in 2005.

The apex court said the home ministry’s failure to disclose the facts to Patil and the 12-year delay before she finally disposed of the petition, rejecting Das’s plea, was sufficient ground for commuting his death penalty to life imprisonment.

The court said the Centre had tried to explain the “long time gap of 12 years” between submission of petition by Das and its rejection thereof, citing various reasons like correspondence between the Centre and the Assam government and consideration of the matter at different levels in the home ministry.

But no explanation was given for three years (between June 6, 2001, the date on which the then home minister recommended rejection of Das's mercy plea, and September 2004, when the file again started moving within the ministry) and the five years between September 30, 2005, the date on which Kalam accepted the mercy petition and September 2010, when the file was summoned back by the home ministry.

The court also noted that the home ministry, while making a recommendation to Patil in October 2010 for rejection of Das’s mercy petition or in the summary it prepared for Patil’s consideration, did not mention that Kalam had accepted the mercy petition in 2005. “Why this was done has not been explained by the respondents,” the court noted.

While writing the judgment, Justice G.S. Singhvi observed that all this “leads to an inference that the President was kept in the dark about the view expressed by her predecessor and was deprived of an opportunity to objectively consider the entire matter”.

A bench of Justice Singhvi and Justice S.J. Mukhopadhyay passed the judgment while upholding Das’s appeal, challenging Gauhati High Court’s decision to reject his mercy plea.

The same bench had last month rejected the mercy plea of Punjab terrorist Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar on the ground that prolonged delay in disposal of the mercy petition cannot be a ground for commutation as he was involved in terrorist activities and terrorists have no mercy for their victims.

Das was convicted and sentenced to death by a sessions court in Assam for the murder of Harekanta Das, a truck owner, in 1996 when he severed his victim’s head and carried it like a trophy in the town before being arrested. Das had committed the offence while on bail relating to the murder of Rajen Das, secretary of Assam Motor Workers Union, on December 24, 1990.

Das’s appeal, challenging the rejection of his mercy petition, was dismissed by the high court, which upheld his death sentence, which was confirmed by the apex court in 1999. The governor of Assam rejected his petition on April 7, 2000.

The mercy petition addressed to the President was forwarded by the Assam government to the home ministry in June 2000. After a lot of correspondence with the state government, the ministry prepared a note suggesting that Das’s petition may be rejected.