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Unpardonable delays

Wednesday, 19 February 2014 | Pioneer | in Edit

Have deadline for deciding mercy petitions

The commutation by the Supreme Court on Tuesday of the death sentence given to three prisoners convicted for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has come as no surprise. After the apex court had on January 21 held in the case of associates of forest brigand Veerappan and others that delays by the executive in deciding on mercy petitions can be a ground for setting aside the death penalty, a similar relief to the killers of Rajiv Gandhi had been on the anvil. The court had held that an inordinate delay in the execution of capital sentence had a “de-humanising effect” on the condemned prisoners who had to face the “agony” of waiting for years under the shadow of death during the pendency of their pleas for mercy. Through its January 21 order, the Supreme Court had overturned its earlier verdict which held that delays in the disposal of mercy petitions could not be a ground for commuting capital punishment. The responsibility for the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi escaping the noose lies squarely with the Union Government. They are not innocent; they had been convicted by a trial court in January 1998 and awarded the death sentence. The apex court confirmed the sentence in May 1999. The condemned convicts then approached the President for mercy. It is from here on that the delays began. What should have been decided upon expeditiously, given that not only a former Prime Minister had been killed but that the violence was a clear act of terrorism — which is why a special Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act court sentenced them — was kept needlessly hanging in the balance. One can argue about whether the delay was the result of sloppiness on the part of the Union Government which is supposed to offer its opinion to the President on the matter or a case of a President not promptly taking a call. The end result is that the delay has given a ground to the apex court to commute the death sentence of convicts who deserved the hangman's noose. This should worry not just the regime but all those people who believe that convicts who have been given capital punishment — which comes in the rarest of rare case — after due legal process has been followed, should not escape the execution of the death sentence.By allowing for, and often plotting, delays, and thus securing life for the convicts, the authorities are doing a disservice to the families of the victims who will justifiably feel that they have been robbed of justice.

It is true that the Government had argued before the Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam against the commutation of the capital punishment to the killers of Rajiv Gandhi. But it should be giving more thought to the core issue, which is that there should be a deadline for the disposal of mercy petitions. While the Centre cannot bind the President in a time-frame, it can make a beginning by setting and adhering to a time-limit for itself. If the Union Government is prompt in responding to the President when the latter forwards mercy petitions to it, the President too will not delay the matter. As things stand, such pleas keep travelling the corridors of power for years together without being decided. Because the Centre had kept the mercy petitions of Rajiv Gandhi's killers pending for more than a decade, it cannot argue with justification that the delay wasn't unreasonable, unexplainable or unconscionable.

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