New Delhi, Feb 18: The Supreme Court Tuesday commuted the death sentence of three key conspirators in former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, holding that the 11-year delay in deciding their mercy petitions was unreasonable and de-humanizing.
An apex court bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh said: “We commute their death sentence into imprisonment for life. Life imprisonment means end of one’s life, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate governmentÂ…”
Conspirators V. Sriharan alias Murugan, A.G. Perarivalan alias Arivu and T. Suthendraraja alias Santhan sought the commutation of their death sentence due to the long delay in deciding their mercy petitions. The men are lodged in the Vellore prison in Tamil Nadu.
While Perarivalan is an Indian, the other two are Sri Lankan Tamils. Sriharan was a member of the intelligence wing of the now vanquished Tamil Tigers, whose leader V. Prabhakaran ordered Gandhi’s assassination.
A Tamil Tiger woman suicide bomber strapped with explosives concealed under her clothes killed Gandhi by blowing herself up while pretending to touch his feet at an election rally near Chennai May 21, 1991.
The Supreme Court said the delay in deciding the mercy petitions was “inordinate and unreasonable”. The petitioners had repeatedly appealed to the president but got no reply.
Chief Justice Sathasivam said: “There is 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 junked the government’s contention that it was the burden of the death row convict seeking commutation of death sentence to prove that he suffered during the prolonged delay in deciding his mercy petition.
Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati claimed that the prisoners had “a good time” in prison and did not suffer at all.
The court said the position taken by Vahanvati was unknown to law.
“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 the constitution and the dehumanizing effect is presumed in such cases.”
While commuting the death sentence, the court addressed two questions: whether the nature of delay caused is reasonable or inordinate and whether the dehumanizing effect on the accused due to delay has to be ascertained or mere delay on the face of it is sufficient for commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment.
“The clemency procedure … provides a ray of hope to the condemned prisoners and his family members for commutation of death sentence into life imprisonment and, therefore, the executive should step up and exercise its time-honoured tradition of clemency power guaranteed in the constitution one-way or the other within a reasonable time.”
The court held that the mercy petitions could be disposed off at a “much faster pace than what is adopted now”.
Those involved in Gandhi’s assassination were convicted by a TADA court in January 1998 and awarded the death sentence. The apex court confirmed this May 11, 1999.
The mercy partitions of the three were rejected by the Tamil Nadu governor April 25, 2004. These were forwarded to union home ministry May 5, 2004.
After over five years, the ministry forwarded the petitions to the president. It recalled them Feb 23, 2011, contributing another delay of five years and eight months.
Eventually, on Aug 12, 2011, the president rejected the mercy petitions — after a gap of more than 11 years.
This was challenged in the Madras High Court Aug 29, 2011. In May 2012, the Supreme Court transferred these cases to itself.