A writ petition was moved in the Supreme Court on Saturday on behalf of the four associates of the slain forest brigand Veerappan — whose mercy petitions were rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee — to stay their execution.

Senior counsel Conin Gonzalves, appearing for advocate Shamik Narain, moved the urgent petition at the residence of Chief Justice of India Altams Kabir who, however, after ascertaining that there was no proof that the execution was scheduled for Sunday as was feared, directed that it be listed for hearing in due course.

Simon, Gnanaprakash, Madaiah and Bilavendra, who were convicted of killing 22 persons in landmine blasts in Palar, have been lodged in the Hindalga Central Jail in Belgaum since 2004.

In his writ petition, filed on behalf of the convicts, Mr. Narain sought commutation of their death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of an inordinate nine-year delay in disposal of their mercy petitions. Earlier in the day, the petitioners’ lawyers were prevented from meeting the convicts and also not allowed to obtain their signatures on an affidavit that had to be filed in support of a writ petition proposed to be filed in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore. The prison authorities informed the lawyers that they had received instructions from the Chief Secretary not to allow anybody to meet the convicts. Outside the prison, the lawyers were informed by various persons that some prisoners were going to be executed on Sunday morning and hence nobody would be allowed to meet them. They were also told that gallows were being prepared. Mr. Narain said: The Karnataka Prison Manual and Rules explicitly provide that execution of the death sentence shall be scheduled [for] not earlier than 14 days from the date of receipt of rejection of the mercy petitions. Therefore, since the convicts were informed of the rejection of their mercy petitions only on the evening of February 12, their executions cannot be scheduled before February 26.”

Mr. Narain said that as per the law laid down by a Constitution Bench of this court in the case of Triveniben vs. State of Gujarat “undue long delay in the execution of the sentence of death will entitle the condemned prisoner to approach this court under Article 32.” Therefore, the nine-year delay in the disposal of the mercy petitions gave the petitioners a right to approach this court and seek commutation of the death sentence and to challenge the rejection of their mercy petitions.

Unless they were allowed to access these rights, the convicts would be executed in complete violation of the procedure established by law, Mr. Narain said. He also sought a direction to the Karnataka government to permit lawyers to meet the convicts to obtain instructions and signatures on vakalatnamas, affidavits and other court-related documents.