The Supreme Court order commuting the death sentence of 15 life convicts to life imprisonment for ‘inordinate delay’ in deciding the fate of their mercy petition has come as a ray of light at a time when people had started losing faith in the entire political and judicial system and also the media.
A Bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam handed over a landmark judgment, which in effect, asserts that death convicts convicted for whatever the level of their offence, were as much entitled to rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, as to normal human beings.
Besides the ‘inordinate’ and ‘inexplicable delay’ the Supreme Court Apex Court also lays down clear guidelines that convicts suffering from mental illness and schizophrenia will also be spared the death sentence. This may be the beginning of another high level racket for procuring medical certificates but that is a small price for updating the Indian judicial system with world standards.
Human Rights activists in India have been shouting themselves hoarse that It was a shame that while death penalty had been abolished in most civilised countries (98 have abolished it completely while 58 retain it in exceptional cases) the largest democracy of the world had over 400 convicts languishing in various parts of the country because the highest authorities had neither the time nor the inclination to decide the fate of their mercy petitions.
It was in 1980 that the Supreme Court had propounded the theory of ‘rarest of rare case’ to allow convicts to be hanged. But that criteria has also been open to criticism that it is subjective and allows the judges to take sometimes take decisions which a majority of public may not agree with.
But the current judgement has a lot of rainbow hues that should put India on par with international standards of imparting justice. Some of the principles enunciated by the Supreme Court for trials of such convicts may cloud the furrows of traditional beliefs that we have been born with. But that is the difference between a Judge sitting on that exalted seat and the common man, who goes more by sentiment than by dispassionate logic.
For instance, the current Home Minister Sushil Shinde, known for one gaffe after another became the darling of the nation when he carried out the secret execution of Ajmal Kasab convicted for 2008 Mumbai attack, within a day of President Pranab Mukherkee rejecting his mercy petition in December 2012.
This execution was compared to the flawless and precise execution of Osama Bin Laden by US President Barack Obama while sitting in the US.
The latest judgment of the Supreme Court however frowns upon such heroics. Laying down very clear guidelines for dealing with death convicts it clearly mentions that there has to be at least a 14 day gap between the rejection of the mercy petition by the Governor or President and the actual execution. It also entails that the convict and his family must also be informed about this and the family members are allowed to meet him before the execution.
Rising above narrow and sentimental considerations the Supreme Court has said that these guidelines will be applicable as much for terror accused as to those involved in heinous killings and murders.
Yet another laudable highlight of the SC Judgment, applicable to death convicts languishing in jails for years, some in solitary confinement, it has termed solitary confinement unconstitutional.
Even though totally abolishing death penalty particularly for terror activities in India may create a huge uproar especially when India has been raising its voice at international forums against state sponsored terrorism by its neighbours the latest judgment is being considered a big stride in its journey for total abolition of the death penalty.
By Amitabh Srivastava
Supreme Court of India