India’s Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, has commuted the death sentences of 15 convicts on the grounds that delay in their execution was reason enough to convert them to life imprisonment.
Tuesday's judgment, among others, is likely to have an impact on three convicts awaiting death for their role in the 1991 assassination of the then former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. They waited for eight years before their mercy plea was rejected in 2011.
The top court reversed its own earlier verdict in April 2013 when it held that delay in deciding mercy plea could not be a ground for commutation of death sentence.
The ruling on Tuesday was on an appeal by four members of the dreaded gang of sandalwood smuggler and poacher Veerappan who operated in the jungles straddling the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu before he was shot dead in 2004.
The four members had filed their mercy petition in 2004, and it took nine years before their petition was rejected.
"Inordinate and unreasonable delay attribute to torture. Whether the convict is a terrorist or an ordinary criminal, delay is a ground for commutation of death sentence," reports said, quoting the court ruling.
The court ruled that prolonged imprisonment of a convict awaiting execution amounts to cruelty and violates the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, reports said.
In India’s legal system, the country’s president is the last stop for convicts on death row seeking mercy. If the president accepts the mercy plea, it will go to the federal home ministry which can send it to the president for reconsideration.
The second time, the president is mandated to reverse the earlier decision. But there is no time frame for the president to affix the signature, and that is one cause of delay.
On Tuesday, the court ruled that the convict must be executed within 14 days of the mercy plea being rejected. It held that mental illness and solitary confinement could also be grounds for commuting death sentences.
The judgement by a Supreme Court bench headed by chief justice P Sathasivam held that convicts given death sentence must be informed about the rejection of their mercy pleas and should be given a chance to meet their family members before they are executed, reports said.
It further ruled that solitary confinement of a prisoner, including those awaiting death, was unconstitutional.