In a major relief to three condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the Supreme Court today commuted their death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of 11 years delay in deciding their mercy plea by the Centre.

A bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam rejected the Centre’s submission that there was no unreasonable delay in deciding their mercy plea and the condemned prisoners did not go through an agonising experience as they were enjoying life behind the bars.

The bench, also comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and SK Singh, said they are unable to accept the Centre’s view and commuted the death sentence of convicts – Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan – to imprisonment for life subject to remission by the Government.

It asked the Centre to give timely advice to the President so that mercy petitions can be decided without unreasonable delay.

“We implore the Government to render advice in reasonable time to the President,” the bench said, adding that “the executive should exercise its power one way or other in reasonable time”.

It said the Government should handle the cases of mercy petitions in a more systematised manner.

“We are confident that mercy plea can be decided at much faster speed than what is being done now,” the bench said.

Mercy plea by convicts

Rajiv Gandhi was killed in May 1991. His assassins were convicted by a TADA court in January 1998 and were awarded death sentence, which was confirmed by the apex court on May 11, 1999.

The bench had reserved its verdict on February 4 on the petition of the three convicts for commutation of their death sentence to life imprisonment on ground of delay in deciding their mercy plea.

Their plea was strongly opposed by the Centre which had said that it was not a fit case for the apex court to commute death sentence on the ground of delay in deciding mercy plea.

Admitting that there has been delay in deciding the mercy petitions, the Government, however, had contended that the delay was not unreasonable, unexplainable and unconscionable to commute the death penalty.

The convicts’ counsel had contested the Centre’s arguments, saying they have suffered due to the delay and the apex court should intervene and commute their death sentence to life term.

The convicts had submitted that mercy plea of other condemned prisoners, which were filed after them, were decided but their petitions were kept pending by the government.

The apex court had in May 2012 decided to adjudicate the petitions of Rajiv Gandhi killers against their death penalty and had directed that their plea, pending with the Madras High Court, be sent to it.

The court had passed the order on a petition by one L.K Venkat, seeking transfer of their plea out of Tamil Nadu on the ground that free and fair hearing would not be possible in the State due to the surcharged atmosphere in favour of the convicts.

The Madras High Court had earlier stayed their hanging slated for September 9, 2011 and issued notice to the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government.

Their main contention was that the delay of 11 years and four months in disposal of the mercy petitions made the execution of the death sentence “unduly harsh and excessive,” amounting to violation of their right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The apex court had on January 21 ruled that delay by the Government in deciding mercy plea of death row convicts can be a ground for commuting their sentence and had granted life imprisonment to 15 condemned prisoners, including four aides of forest brigand Veerappan.

The court had held that prolonging execution of capital sentence has a “dehumanising effect” on condemned prisoners who have to face the “agony” of waiting for years under the shadow of death during the pendency of their mercy plea.