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Delay saves Rajiv killers

New Delhi, Feb. 18: Three men convicted of killing Rajiv Gandhi escaped the gallows today after the Supreme Court commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment, saying the Union government’s 11-year delay in deciding their mercy pleas was “inordinate” and “unreasonable”.

The three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam rejected the Centre’s contention that the trio were enjoying life behind bars and advised the government to ensure that such pleas were disposed of at a “much faster pace”.

“Regardless and independent of the suffering it causes, delay makes the process of execution of death sentence unfair, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious and thereby violates procedural due process guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution…” Justice Sathasivam said, writing the judgment for the bench that also included Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh.

The judgment came on an appeal filed by V. Sriharan alias Murugan, T. Suthenthiraraja alias Santhan, and A.G. Perarivalan alias Arivu, convicted of involvement in the LTTE plot to assassinate the former Prime Minister.

Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber in May 1991 while campaigning in Tamil Nadu. Nalini, Murugan’s wife, was also given the death sentence but it was later commuted to a life term.

Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan had appealed for mercy, first to the Tamil Nadu governor and then to the Centre but got no decision until 2011, when their plea was finally rejected.

While commuting their sentences, the court said Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan would remain in jail for the rest of their lives, subject to remission available under Section 432 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Under this provision, a government can release life convicts for good behaviour and other considerations after they serve at least 14 years in jail.

The court took note of the time taken in rejecting the mercy petitions of the convicts — from October 27, 1999, when it was first rejected by the Tamil Nadu governor, to August 12, 2011, when the President rejected it, a delay of more than 11 years.

The case was transferred to the apex court on May 1, 2012, on a petition by the convicts as the issue involved vital questions of constitutional law.

In its judgment, the bench said it was “indisputable” that the delay that ensued was “inordinate and unreasonable and… not caused at the instance of the petitioners”. The judges cited a judgment the court had given last month, when it commuted the sentences of 15 death-row prisoners, including associates of slain brigand Veerappan, to life in jail on the grounds of delay.

The bench said while it did not derive any judicial “pleasure” in interfering with the powers exercised by the President or governors in dealing with mercy petitions, it had to intervene because of the violation of the fundamental rights of the convicts.

“We are confident that the mercy petitions filed under Article 72/161 can be disposed of at a much faster pace than what is adopted now, if the due procedure prescribed by law is followed … verbatim.

“The fact that no time limit is prescribed to the President/governor for disposal of mercy petition(s) should compel the government to work in a more systematised manner to repose the confidence of the people in the institution of democracy,” Justice Sathasivam said. “…we implore upon the government to render its advice to the President within a reasonable time so that the President is in a position to arrive at a decision at the earliest.”

Article 72 vests the President with powers to grant pardon to a death-row convict. Article 161 provides similar discretion to a governor.

The bench rejected attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati’s argument that the death-row trio were enjoying their life in prison and had not shown any remorse, saying there was “no requirement” in Indian law as well as in international judgments for a death-row convict to “prove actual harm occasioned” by the delay.

“There is no obligation on the convict to demonstrate specific ill effects of suffering and agony on his mind and body as a prerequisite for commutation of sentence of death.”

The court cited the letters written by the convicts to the President seeking speedy disposal of their mercy petitions on the ground that they were going through a lot of mental trauma and agony.

“In the light of the above discussion and observations… we commute their death sentence into imprisonment for life,” the bench said.