The Supreme Court of India on 18 February 2014 commuted the death sentence of three convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case to life imprisonment. The decision was made by the apex court following the delay of 11 years in deciding their mercy plea by the central government.
The decision was made by the three-judge bench of Supreme Court that was headed by the Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam and included Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice SK Singh. The court rejected the submission of the central government that said that there was no unreasonable delay in deciding their mercy plea and it also condemned prisoners by saying that they did not went through an agonizing experience as they were enjoying their life behind the bars. The Court in its decision held that the prolonged execution of capital sentence was a dehumanizing effect on the prisoners as they have been waiting for execution of the sentence because their mercy pleas were not confirmed or replied in any other form.
The bench of the Court in its decision said that it was unable to accept the view of the centre and that’s why it has commuted the death sentence of convicts namely Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan to imprisonment for life subject to remission by the government.
The Court in its decision also suggested the government to handle the cases of mercy petitions in a more systematized manner as the mercy pleas can be decided at mush faster speed than it is being done at present. It also asked the Centre to give timely advice to the President so that mercy petitions can be decided without unreasonable delay.
Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi
Rajiv Gandhi was killed on 21 May 1991 and his assassins were convicted by a TADA Court in January 1998. He died in the suicide bombing in Sriperumbudur near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist organization from Sri Lanka was blamed for the attack. The death of Rajiv Gandhi came a few days after India ended its involvement in Sri Lanka through an Indian Peace Keeping Force in the Sri Lankan Civil War.
In the judgment, the TADA Court pronounced a death sentence and the same was confirmed by the Supreme Court on 11 May 1999.
Norms provided in Constitution of India for commutation of death sentence
The Constitution of India in the clemency procedure under Article 72 provides the power to the President
1. To grant pardons etc and to suspend, remit or commute sentences of any person convicted of any offence in certain cases like
a) In all cases where the punishment or sentence is by a Court Martial
b) In all cases where the punishment or sentence is for an offence against any law relating to a matter to which the executive power of the Union extends
c) In all cases where the sentence is a sentence of death
2. Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the power conferred by law on any officer of the Armed Forces of the Union to suspend, remit or commute a sentence passed by a Court Martial.
3. Nothing in sub-clause (c) of clause (1) shall affect the power to suspend, remit or commute a sentence of death exercisable by the Governor of a State under any law for the time being in force.
Under Article 161 it provides
Power of Governor of a state to grant pardons, etc reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offence against any law relating to a matter to which the executive power of the State extends.
These Constitutional provisions provide a hope to condemned prisoners and their family members that the death sentence can be commuted into a life imprisonment.