In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on Tuesday granted relief to the three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case — Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan — by commuting their death sentence into life term on the grounds of inordinate delay in disposal of their mercy petitions by the President.
A three-judge Bench headed by the Chief Justice P. Sathasivam rejected the contention of the Centre that the three convicts did not deserve any mercy as they never showed remorse for the killing of the former Prime Minister and they enjoyed their prison life.
Considering the fact that the convicts were languishing jail for nearly 23 years, the Bench also gave a ray of hope for their release by saying that the State government could exercise its remission powers under Section 432 and 433 and following the due procedure in law.
In May 2012, the apex court had transferred to itself the writ petitions filed by three convicts in the Madras High Court challenging the rejection of their clemency plea by the former President Pratibha Patil after 11 years. The High Court on August 30, 2011 stayed their execution.
Writing the judgment the CJI said the principles had already been laid down by this court in its judgment on January 21, that inordinate and unexplained delay would be a ground for commuting death sentence into life imprisonment. In this case the only question to be decided was whether the inordinate delay was a supervening circumstance and whether the delay was caused at the instance of the accused.
Referring to the stand of the Centre that the convicts were enjoying their prison life and they did not suffer any torture, the Bench said the accused were not under legal obligation to prove physical torture. Such an interpretation was unknown to law and it would be beyond the reach of death row convicts to prove that they suffered torture.
There was no requirement in law to prove actual harm suffered by them, the Bench said.
The Bench pointed out that the materials on record would show that the convicts had sent several letters and reminders to the President which remained unheaded, which would show that they suffered unendurable torture.
The Bench said mercy petitions provide a ray of hope to condemned prisoners. Merely because no time limit was fixed for disposal of mercy petitions, the executive should not sit over these petitions and recommend the decisions to the President within a reasonable period for arriving at an early decision. The Bench said the court did not derive any pleasure in judicial review of the decisions taken by the President. The Bench allowed the petitions and commuted the death sentence of three death row convicts into life imprisonment.
General Secretary of MDMK Vaiko, who was present in the court talking to The Hindu soon after the verdict said “this is an historic judgment and will go down in golden letters in judicial history”. He appealed to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to take into consideration the judgment and order the release of the three convicts exercising the State government's powers under Section 432 Cr.P.C.