Why commutation of Rajiv assassins death penalty is legally right ?


The Supreme Court has overwhelmingly depended on the case Shatrughan Chauhan  vs. Union of India  to decide the issue of commutation of death penalty of the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, our former Prime Minister.  The SC held in Shatrughan Chauhan case that If  there is undue, unexplained and inordinate delay in execution due to pendency of mercy petitions or the executive as well as the constitutional authorities have failed to take note of/consider the relevant aspects, this Court is well within its powers under Article 32 to hear the grievance of the convict and commute the death sentence into life imprisonment on this ground alone however, only after satisfying that the delay was not caused at the instance of the accused himself…”.  That means the convicts only need to show that there was an undue, unexplained and inordinate delay in execution of death sentence due to pendency of mercy petitions.

The Apex court observed that there has been an exorbitant delay in this case of Rajiv assassins.  The mercy petitions under Article 72 of constitution were filed in 2000 and the president rejected it in 2011.  11 years to decide whether or not to give mercy? The Supreme Court observed “Exorbitant delay in disposal of mercy petition renders the process of execution of death sentence arbitrary, whimsical and capricious and, therefore, inexecutable. Furthermore, such imprisonment, occasioned by inordinate delay in disposal of mercy petitions, is beyond the sentence accorded by the court and to that extent is extralegal and excessive. Therefore, the apex constitutional authorities must exercise the power under Article 72/161 within the bounds of constitutional discipline and should dispose of the mercy petitions filed before them in an expeditious manner.”

Another contention against commuting death penalty seems to be that the convicts should prove that they “suffered” due to this delay. Death noose is before you and someone else is to decide whether or not you should be hanged, is it wise to say that you will enjoy the delay in decision? Seems like the apex court also thought in these terms when it said that “The argument that the petitioners are under a legal obligation to produce evidence of their sufferings and harm caused to them on account of prolonged delay is unknown to law and will be misinterpretation of Shatrughan Chauhan (case) .Such a prerequisite would render the fundamental rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution beyond the reach of death-row convicts and will make them nugatory and inaccessible for all intent and purposes. Besides, 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.”

While some celebrate this judgment as if the assassins were declared innocent, To them Supreme Court says “ We once again clarify that the relief sought for under these kind of petitions is not per se review of the order passed under Article 72/161 of the Constitution on merits but on the ground of violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution to all the citizens including the death row convicts.”  The court also noted the unreasonable delay in executive decisions and expressed displeasure over it as follows  “We are confident that the mercy petitions filed under Article 72/161 can be disposed of at a much faster pace than what is adopted now, if the due procedure prescribed by law is followed in verbatim. The fact that no time limit is prescribed to the President/Governor for disposal of the mercy petition should compel the government to work in a more systematized manner to repose the confidence of the people in the institution of democracy. Besides, it is definitely not a pleasure for this Court to interfere in the constitutional power vested under Article 72/161 of the Constitution and, therefore, we implore upon the government to render its advice to the President within a reasonable time so that the President is in a position to arrive at a decision at the earliest.”

Finally Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of assassins of our Former Prime minister into imprisonment for life. SC concluded the judgment by “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 Government under Section 432 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 which, in turn, is subject to the procedural checks mentioned in the said provision and further substantive check in Section 433-A of the Code.”

As a student of law, what I understand is that the Supreme Court has held that the inordinate delay in deciding mercy petition is a strong ground for commutation into life imprisonment. To all those who are emotionally responding to the judgment, my only submission is that emotions have no place in law. The court does not and need not know the status( socio-religious-political-economic) of killed and the killer, it only decides the issue before it. The issue, in this case, was simple- which was- whether inordinate delay is a ground for commutation. The court answered it in affirmative, just like it did in a case decided last month which was not discussed by media and the layman since it was not political or high profile in nature.

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