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Bhullar off death row

Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar

New Delhi, March 31: The Supreme Court today commuted Khalistani terrorist Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’s death sentence to a life term, upholding a curative petition that was his last chance for relief three years after the President had rejected his mercy petition.

A four-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice cited the 49-year-old’s mental illness and the eight-year delay by the President in deciding his mercy plea to commute the 13-year-old death sentence.

Bhullar, convicted in a 1993 blast case, has spent about 20 years behind bars since his arrest and the Delhi government can, if it wants, remit his term and free him. Section 433A of the Criminal Procedure Code allows the Centre and state governments to release any prisoner who has spent 14 years in jail.

However, the court today deviated from usual practice and refrained from saying in its order that Bhullar’s life sentence was “subject to remission” — though this does not technically affect his chances of getting the relief.

Legal experts believe this omission was a conscious decision by the court after its January 21 commutation of the death sentences of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers was followed by a controversial effort by the Jayalalithaa government to release them unilaterally.

The controversy relates not to the court’s routine assertion on the possibility of remission but to Jayalalithaa’s move, with the Centre arguing that any decision on remission in the case was its sole prerogative because the prosecuting agency was the CBI.

The Supreme Court is now expected to settle the matter and has already stayed Jayalalithaa’s decision.

Bhullar was sentenced to death on August 28, 2001, by a sessions court for a September 1993 blast in Delhi that killed nine people and injured 17, including then Youth Congress president M.S. Bitta.

While passing today’s order, the court relied on the January 21 judgment, which had ruled that “unexplained delay” in the disposal of mercy petitions, as well as mental illness, were grounds for commutation even in terror cases.

The bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justices R.M. Lodha, H.L. Dattu and S.J. Mukhopadhyaya referred to the findings of a medical team that had examined Bhullar on February 2.

According to the medical report, Bhullar, who has been in hospital the past five years, suffers from “severe depression with psychotic features (treatment refractory depression)” as well as high blood pressure, abnormal fat and cholesterol levels, spondylosis and mild prostate enlargement.

Long battle

Bhullar’s wife Navneet Kaur had fought a relentless battle to save her husband from the gallows despite serial setbacks.

His death sentence was upheld by the apex court, which dismissed Kaur’s review petition in 2002. She sent a mercy petition to the President in January 2003 and, during its pendency, filed a curative petition that too was dismissed by the apex court in March 2003.

On May 30, 2011, the family received a communication from the Delhi home department saying the President had rejected the mercy petition.

In June that year, Kaur filed a fresh writ petition before the apex court seeking quashing of the death sentence on the ground of the eight-year delay and Bhullar’s mental illness.

It was dismissed in April 2013 by a two-judge bench that ruled that such delay could not be a ground for commuting a terrorist’s death sentence and also rejected the claim that Bhullar was mentally ill. The bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi (since retired) and S.J. Mukhopadhyaya dismissed the review petition in August.

Kaur then filed a curative petition, which was upheld today.