NEW DELHI: If 'delay' in disposing a mercy petition is taken as the ground to commute the death penalty of those convicted of heinous crimes, it will have a bearing on the fate of 21 people on the death row, whose pleas have been pending for over five to 10 years.
Asking for the Centre's reply, the Madras high court on Tuesday observed that there had been a delay of over 11 years in the disposal of the petitions filed by the three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The HC also stayed for eight weeks the execution of the three convicts fixed for September 9.
Besides, the Tamil Nadu assembly had also passed a unanimous resolution urging President Pratibha Patil to reconsider the mercy plea of the three convicts. The move prompted the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah to speak about the Parliament House attack case convict Afzal Guru.
"If J&K assembly had passed a resolution similar to the Tamil Nadu one for Afzal Guru would the reaction have been as muted? I think not," Omar said on the micro-blogging site twitter.
The argument of 'delay', if accepted, can also be taken as a ground to pitch for the case of terrorists Devender Pal Singh Bhullar. The development has already witnessed ruling Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab writing to the Centre for commuting the death sentence of the Khalistan Commando Force terrorist.
While the President had rejected Bhullar's mercy plea in May, the final nod on Afzal Guru is awaited after the home ministry forwarded its opinion rejecting his plea. There is one more murder convict, Mahendra Nath Das, from Assam whose mercy plea was rejected by the President in May.
However, all the mercy pleas have not ended in 'rejection'. Since November 2009, President Pratibha Patil has commuted the death sentence of 22 convicts in different cases to life imprisonment. None of these convicts was guilty of any terror-related crime. The Madras High Court's observation now opens a debate, taking a cue from what the Supreme Court had held in similar cases.
The apex court had in 1989 held in the Triveniben vs State of Gujarat case that "undue delay" in execution of a death sentence entitled the condemned prisoner under Article 32 of Constitution to approach the court that his death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. The apex court, however, did not quantify the period of "inordinate delay", leaving scope for interpretation especially when the clemency powers of the President, under Article 72 of the Constitution, do not prescribe any time frame for disposal of mercy petitions by the President.
Sources in the home ministry said that the Centre, which received notice from the Madras HC on the petition filed by the three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi case, will tell the court about provisions of Article 72. A senior official said: "The Constitution does not provide any time limit for the President to decide any clemency petition. So, the argument of the delay does not hold any ground."
Source: The Times of India