SC seeks Centre’s reply on death row convict’s mercy plea pending for 8 years

The Supreme Court on Friday sought Centre’s response on a death row convict’s plea seeking commutation of sentence to life imprisonment for the failure on part of the Central government to decide on his mercy petition filed eight years ago.

The convict, Balwant Singh Rajoana, was sentenced to death for the murder of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh who died in a bomb explosion in Chandigarh on August 31, 1995. The petitioner has been in custody for nearly 25 years.

Rajoana filed a mercy petition before the President on March 25, 2012 but has heard nothing on it till date. Several attempts to seek progress on his mercy petition under the Right to Information (RTI) Act did not succeed.

Last year, on September 27, the Centre decided to commute the death penalty of Rajoana to life sentence on the special occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. Almost a year has passed but the decision is yet to be implemented.

Citing these reasons, Rajoana decided to approach the apex court and seek benefit of a 2014 decision passed in Shatrughan Chauhan v Union of India where undue, inordinate delay in deciding mercy petitions was held to be a ground to commute punishment of death row convicts. The judgment declared that prolonged delay in execution of the death sentence has a “dehumanizing effect” on the death row convict.

Rajoana’s lawyer Rupesh Kumar said, “From July 31, 2007 the petitioner is on death row. He is suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorder along with various other ailments. After moving the mercy petition, he and his family moved four RTI petitions between 2016 and 2018. On every occasion, the Centre responded by saying the matter is under consideration. No reason for delay was cited and so we decided to approach the top court.”

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde issued notice to the Centre on Rajoana’s petition and posted the matter after four weeks. Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for Rajoana, argued that all that the convict was seeking was life sentence and not a pardon.

The bench asked Rohatgi, “You have been convicted for killing the chief minister of a state. Has there been a precedent in the past where the President of India has pardoned anybody who is convicted of killing a chief minister.”

Rohatgi said that in 2014 soon after the apex court laid down the law that inordinate delay in deciding mercy petitions will lead to automatic commutation, persons who were convicted of assassinating former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi got benefited under the rule. He cited the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar who too got the benefit of this decision as the Centre failed to act on his mercy petition for eight years.

“There is clear violation of his fundamental rights ensuing from inordinate delay caused at the hands of the executive in deciding the said mercy petition,” Rohatgi said. With the Centre now issuing directions for commutation of Rajoana, Rohatgi asked the Court to direct the Centre to clarify its stand.

The incident involving Rajoana involved a bomb explosion in the porch of the Punjab and Haryana Civil Secretariat, Chandigarh, which led to the death of the then Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh along with 16 others.

Rajoana was named in the FIR along with 15 others and taken into custody on January 14, 1996. On July 27, 2007, the Patiala House Court in New Delhi awarded the death sentence to Rajoana which was confirmed by the Delhi High Court on October 12, 2010.

Rajoana did not prefer an appeal against this decision and instead filed a mercy petition before the President under Article 72 of the Constitution.

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