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Life term remissions on hold

New Delhi, July 9: A five-judge Constitution bench today restrained all states and Union territories from granting remission to life convicts until it decides the row over the remission granted to Rajiv Gandhi’s killers by Tamil Nadu.

A bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, R.M. Lodha, passed the restraint order on a day the Narendra Modi government supported the erstwhile UPA’s stand that the Centre alone had the prerogative to decide the killers’ release as the CBI, a central agency, had investigated the case.

“Meanwhile, the states are restrained from granting any form of remission to any prisoners,” Justice Lodha said.

On February 19, the Jayalalithaa government had decided to release seven life convicts in the assassination case, a day after the top court commuted to life term the death penalty awarded to Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. The remaining four were undergoing life sentences.

On February 20, the top court stayed the killers’ release after the Centre contended that the power to commute vested with itself as the CBI had probed the case. Tamil Nadu claimed it had the power as Section 432 of the CrPC provided for only consultation with the Centre, not “concurrence”.

Appearing for Tamil Nadu, senior counsel Rakesh Dwivedi and others pleaded the order be restricted to life convicts as the interests of non-life convicts would otherwise be hit.

Initially, the court was reluctant to modify the order saying the “heavens would not fall in 10 days”. The reference was to the next hearing scheduled for July 22.

But the counsel pleaded that the hearing would take much time and the rights of other prisoners should not be curtailed till then. The bench then relented, saying the restraint order would apply to life convicts only.

During the hearing, the bench also sought the response of other states and Union territories on whether the Centre or the states had the power to grant remission in matters probed by a central agency. The matter had been referred to it on April 25.

Solicitor-general Ranjit Kumar, defending the erstwhile UPA’s stand, said: “Tamil Nadu has no jurisdiction over matters investigated by the CBI. Since it has no jurisdiction, it could not have passed such an order.”

He told the court that all states and Union territories should be heard in the matter as “the power of commutation (remission) is not happening in one state alone”.

“There are several such cases which are not coming before the courts,” he said.

Justice Rohinton Nariman said the Centre should explain the maintainability of its petition that Tamil Nadu had violated its fundamental right. Otherwise, he said, the Centre would have to approach the court by way of a civil suit.

Solicitor-general Kumar said he was willing to show that such a violation had occurred.

He added that while dealing with executive delay in disposal of mercy petitions, the court should examine whether the fundamental rights of only the accused had to be protected or also those of victims and their families.

The constitution bench will also examine whether a person sentenced to a life term is entitled to remission or should remain in jail throughout his natural life.