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SC rejects review plea on death row 15

New Delhi, March 12: The Supreme Court today dismissed the Centre’s plea seeking a review of its order commuting to life term the death penalty of 15 convicts on grounds of delay in disposal of mercy petitions by the President.

A three-judge bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh also rejected the government’s request to hear the review petition in an open court.

Review petitions are normally heard within judges’ chambers. No advocate or client is allowed to be present at such hearings.

The three-judge bench that passed the January 21 order commuting the death penalty today met at 1.30pm to decide the Centre’s plea but found no merit in it. “Permission for hearing in open court is rejected. The review petitions are dismissed in terms of the signed order,” the bench said tersely.

The only option left for the Centre is to file a curative petition before the apex court. In case of such a petition, apart from the three judges, one or two more judges sit to decide the matter.

On January 21, the apex court in a landmark judgment commuted to life term the death penalty of 15 convicts whose mercy petitions were delayed between two and 11 years.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Sathasivam had then observed that prolonged delay in disposing of mercy petitions violates the convicts’ rights under Article 21 (personal liberty) and such relief was available even to terrorists.

Subsequently, relying on the same judgment, the apex court commuted to life term the death penalty of three Rajiv Gandhi killers. Similar relief sought by Punjab terrorist Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar is pending before the court.

Aggrieved over the spate of commutations, the Centre filed the review petition challenging the January 21 judgment saying it was passed without jurisdiction.

The Centre had argued in the review petition that the three-judge bench could not have passed such an order as it involved a substantial question of constitutional law and ought to have been heard by a minimum of five judges.

The petition said Article 145 (3) of the Constitution provides that “the minimum number of Judges who are to set for the purpose of deciding any case involving a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution or for the purpose of hearing any reference under Article 143 shall be five:

“It is submitted that in the present case, the issue raised was that of the commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of delay, which allegedly attracted Article 21 in favour of the convicts.

“Therefore, it involved a substantial issue of interpretation of the Constitution and ought to have been heard by a Bench of 5 Judges, as mandated under Article 145 of the Constitution of India.

“Furthermore, it is submitted that the interference of this Hon’ble Court with the merits of the order of the rejection issued by the President, exercise of the powers conferred by Article 72, is without jurisdiction.

“It is submitted that once the President had, in exercise of his power under Article 72, rejected the mercy petition, this Hon’ble Court only has a limited power, under judicial review, to disturb the order of the President.”