It is not expected that the highest court in the land should speak in paradoxes. Therefore, when the Supreme Court says that a prisoner sentenced to death continues to enjoy the right to life and liberty it is presumably emphasizing the principle that underlies the right. The courtís point is philosophical rather than literal, in as much as it refers to the condition of the enjoyment of the right to life and liberty ó that is, dignity and respect as a human being ó that should prevail even when an individual is on death row. The source of this remark is the judgment by which the court commuted the capital punishment of 15 convicts to life imprisonment because of what it considered inordinate and unexplained delay in the responses to their mercy petitions.
It was the court that had sentenced these convicts to death. The drama in the reversal underlines the importance the Supreme Court has attached to the humane treatment of prisoners. Obviously, this is also an implied criticism of the administrationís slowness, especially since the government is reputedly quick about some petitions if there is electoral gain to be had from speed. The Supreme Court is focusing on the convictís right to be treated humanely. He should not be subjected to the further pressure of waiting. Hence the court has suggested that the process of mercy petitions be streamlined and carried out within a reasonable time, with a system to remind the president if a petition sits too long in his office. More, the prisoner should be informed at every stage, with copies of the relevant documents given to him. The humane and dignified treatment should continue till the last: to that end the court has stipulated a gap of 14 days between the rejection of the mercy petition and the hanging. The authorities must make sure that the family is informed in time, so that the prisoner can meet his kin and also prepare himself psychologically. From the same position, the Supreme Court has declared solitary confinement unconstitutional, although authorities insist that this is meant for the protection of particular prisoners. The courtís attention is on the prisonerís state of mind, which is why it has said that a mentally ill prisoner cannot be hanged. Whether institutional attitudes to prisoners who are without means, voice or media attention will change because of this law with a humane face remains to be seen.