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SC: death sentence can be commuted if decision on mercy plea is delayed

New Delhi, Jan 21 (PTI): The Supreme Court has said the death sentence of a condemned prisoner can be commuted to life imprisonment if the government delays in deciding the mercy plea.

Giving life term to 15 death-row inmates, including four aides of forest brigand Veerappan, the apex court also ruled that a death convict suffering from mental insanity and schizophrenia cannot be hanged.

It overruled its own verdict in the case of Khalistani terrorist Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, in which it had held that delay in deciding mercy plea cannot be a ground for commutation of death sentence.

Death sentence in such cases can be commuted to life imprisonment on the ground of their mental illness, it said.

Today's judgment may have implications in various cases, including the petitions filed by three death row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case who have challenged the President's rejection of their mercy plea less than three years ago.

Framing guidelines on disposal of mercy petitions and execution of death sentence, a bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam ruled that convicts given death sentence must be informed about the rejection of their mercy pleas and should be given a chance to meet their family members before they are executed.

It also held that solitary confinement of a prisoner, including death row convict, is unconstitutional and it should not be allowed in the prisons.

The bench gave its verdict on a batch of petitions filed by 15 death row inmates seeking its direction for commutation of their sentence to life term on the grounds of delay in deciding mercy plea and mental illness.

The bench also said that execution of death sentence should be carried out only 14 days after rejection of the mercy plea.

The apex court also said that the prison authorities must provide legal aid to prisoners facing death sentence so that they can approach courts for commutation of their sentence on the ground of their illness and delay in deciding mercy plea by the government.

Pronouncing its judgment on 13 petitions filed by the 15 convicts whose execution of sentence had been stayed by the apex court, the three-judge bench clarified that its directions be implemented in all cases whether a person has been convicted under IPC or the anti-terror law.

The issue of communication of rejection of mercy plea assumes importance in view of the controversy surrounding the execution of Parliament attack case convict Mohd Afzal as there was allegation that his family members were not properly informed about the dismissal of his plea and subsequent hanging.

In April last year, a two-judge bench had held that long delay in disposing of mercy pleas by the President or the governor of persons convicted under anti-terror laws or similar statutes cannot be a ground for commutation of death sentence.

The April 12, 2013, ruling was pronounced while rejecting Bhullar's plea for commutation of sentence on ground of delay in deciding his mercy plea. At that time, there were over 20 convicts facing execution.

Later, an apex court bench had granted relief to a condemned prisoner M N Das who had sought conversion of his death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of delay in deciding his mercy petition.

Justice Sathasivam, before taking over as the Chief Justice, had said that there was a need for “authoritative pronouncements” by a larger bench or a Constitution Bench on issues like mercy pleas to avoid conflicting views by smaller benches.

Among the 15 death row inmates on whose pleas the apex court delivered its verdict are sandalwood smuggler Veerappan's aides.

The other death row convicts included Suresh, Ramji, Gurmeet Singh, Praveen Kumar, Sonia and her husband Sanjeev, Sundar Singh and Jafar Ali convicted in various cases.

While Suresh, Ramji, Gurmeet Singh and Jafar Ali are lodged in prisons in Uttar Pradesh, former Haryana legislator Ralu Ram Punia's daughter Sonia and her husband Sanjeev are jailed in Haryana. Praveen is in a Karnataka jail and Sundar Singh is an inmate of a prison in Uttaranchal.

Sonia and Sanjeev were awarded death penalty for killing eight members of her family, including her parents and three children of her brother in 2001.

Gurmeet Singh was convicted for killing 13 of his family members in 1986. Jafar Ali murdered his wife and five daughters. Suresh and Ramji killed five of their relatives.