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SC stays execution, scans delay verdict
- Bench mulls whether commutation on grounds of long wait for mercy applies to Bhullar

New Delhi, Jan. 31: Death-row Khalistani terrorist Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’s fate could hinge on a Supreme Court decision on whether he is entitled to benefit from last week’s judgment linking commutation of death sentences to delays in deciding mercy pleas.

The apex court today stayed Bhullar’s execution and sought a report on his alleged mental illness, a ground pleaded by his wife Navneet Kaur for his death sentence to be reduced to a life term.

A four-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam sought responses from the Centre and the Delhi government on Kaur’s curative petition.

One key point raised by Kaur is the January 21 apex court judgment that said “unexplained delay” in dealing with mercy petitions was a ground for commutation, and that this was so even in terror cases. The judgment also suggested that mental illness too was such a ground.

The judgment had opened a window of hope for Bhullar, whose mercy petition was rejected in 2012 after an eight-year delay, following which a two-judge bench had ruled that such delay could not be a ground for commuting a terrorist’s death sentence.

Passing that order on April 12 last year, the bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi (since retired) and S.J. Mukhopadhyaya had ruled that Bhullar had no mental illness, either. They dismissed Bhullar’s review petition on August 14.

Justice Mukhopadhyaya was part of today’s Chief Justice-headed bench, which also included Justices R.M. Lodha and H.L. Dattu.

During an open-court hearing — unusual for curative petitions — the bench asked Kaur’s counsel K.T.S. Tulsi whether Bhullar’s case could be reopened after the two-judge bench’s verdict.

It wondered whether the January 21 judgment by a three-judge bench commuting the death sentences of 15 convicts could apply retrospectively to Bhullar.

“We will examine whether… (the) earlier judgment (of January 21) is applicable or not (to Bhullar). We want to know whether a judgment of a two-judge bench can get overruled by a subsequent order of a three-judge bench in another matter,” the four-judge bench said.

It asked Tulsi to come prepared with his arguments on the questions posed by it.

The apex court said it would consider “to what extent” a “miscarriage of justice… can be overruled even if it was a case of irretrievable injustice”.

Further, the two-judge bench had said that Bhullar himself had been responsible for the delay in deciding the mercy petition by forwarding several representations to the government for reducing his sentence.

The January 21 judgment had rekindled the hopes of Bhullar and Rajiv Gandhi’s killers by overruling the two-judge bench’s April 2013 verdict that terrorists could not gain commutation on the ground of delay in deciding their mercy petitions.

Another three-judge apex court bench is already dealing with appeals filed by Rajiv’s killers Murugan, T. Suthendraraja and A.G. Perarivalan for a reduction of their death sentences because of the delay in deciding their mercy pleas.

Today, the four-judge bench asked the central and Delhi governments to reply to its notices by February 15 and posted the next hearing for February 19. It asked the director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, to send a report on Bhullar’s mental health within a week.

Bhullar was sentenced to death for a bomb attack on the motorcade of then Youth Congress chief Maninderjit Singh Bitta in Delhi in September 1993, in which nine people died and 17 were injured.

The Supreme Court dismissed Bhullar’s appeal and review petition in 2002 and his curative petition in March 2003. His mercy petition, sent to the President on January 14, 2004, was dismissed in 2012.