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SC commutes death sentence of Rajiv killers for 11yr delay over mercy plea

New Delhi, February 18(PTI): The Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence awarded to three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, citing the 11-year delay on the part of the Union government in deciding their mercy plea.

A bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam rejected the Union government’s contention that the delay in deciding mercy plea of convicts Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan did not result in agony.

On February 4, the bench had reserved its verdict on the plea of the three convicts.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991. His assassins were convicted by a TADA court in January 1998 and were awarded the death sentence, which was confirmed by the apex court May 11, 1999.

“We implore government to render advice in reasonable time to the President for taking a decision on mercy pleas,” the bench, with Justices Ranjan Gogoi and S K Singh, said on Tuesday.

“We are confident that the mercy plea can be decided much faster than what is being done now,” the court said.

The government, admitting that there has been a delay in deciding mercy petitions, had contended that the delay was not unreasonable, unexplainable and unconscionable to commute death penalty.

The counsel appearing for the convicts had contested the Centre's arguments, saying that they have suffered due to the delay by the government in deciding the mercy petitions and the apex court should intervene and commute their death sentence to life term.

The convicts had submitted that mercy plea of other condemned prisoners, which were filed after them, were decided but their petitions were kept pending by the government.

In May 2012, the apex court had decided to adjudicate the petitions of Rajiv Gandhi killers against their death penalty and had directed that their plea, pending with the Madras High Court, be sent to it.

The court had passed the order on a petition by one L K Venkat, seeking transfer of their plea out of Tamil Nadu on the ground that free and fair hearing would not be possible in the state due to the surcharged atmosphere in favour of the convicts.

The Madras High Court had earlier stayed their hanging slated for September 9, 2011, and issued notice to the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government.

Their main contention was that the delay of 11 years and four months in disposal of the mercy petitions made the execution of the death sentence “unduly harsh and excessive,” amounting to violation of their right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

On January 21, the apex court had ruled that delay by the government in deciding mercy plea of death row convicts can be a ground for commuting their sentence, and had granted life imprisonment to 15 condemned prisoners, including four aides of forest brigand Veerappan.

The court had held that prolonging execution of capital sentence has a “dehumanizing effect” on condemned prisoners who have to face the “agony” of waiting for years under the shadow of death while their mercy plea was being decided.