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Delay in deciding mercy plea ground for commutation of death penalty: SC

Superseding its earlier order in the Devinder Singh Bhullar case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday said inordinate and inexplicable delay by the government in deciding mercy plea of death row convicts can be a ground for commuting their sentence. The Supreme Court passed the order while granting life to 15 condemned prisoners including four aides of forest brigand Veerappan.

In a landmark judgement, the court held that prolonging execution of death sentence has a ‘dehumanising effect’ on condemned prisoners who have to face the ‘agony’ of waiting for years under the shadow of death during the pendency of their mercy plea.

Tuesday’s verdict has paved the way for commutation of death sentences of other death row inmates including the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case – Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan alias Arivu –who have also sought commutation of their sentence on the ground that their mercy plea was rejected 11 years after it was moved.

A bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam also framed a slew of guidelines for dealing with mercy petitions by government authorities and for the execution of death sentence. It also held that death sentence can be commuted to life if a prisoner is suffering from mental illness.

‘Since it is well established that Article 21 of the Constitution (Right to Life) does not end with the pronouncement of sentence but extends to the stage of execution of that sentence, as already asserted, prolonged delay in execution of sentence of death has a dehumanising effect on the accused. Delay caused by circumstances beyond the prisoners’ control mandates commutation of death sentence,’ the bench said.

Holding that delay in deciding mercy plea and to keep death-row convicts waiting for their fate is violation of fundamental rights, the bench, also comprising justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh, said that gravity of offence cannot be a ground for delay and all condemned prisoners whether convicted under IPC or anti-terror law are entitled for commutation.

‘Keeping a convict in suspense while consideration of his mercy petition by the President for many years is certainly an agony for him/her. It creates adverse physical conditions and psychological stresses on the convict under sentence of death.

‘Indisputably, this court, while considering the rejection of the clemency petition by the President, under Article 32 read with Article 21 of the Constitution, cannot excuse the agonising delay caused to the convict only on the basis of the gravity of the crime,’ the bench said.
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