The Supreme Court on Wednesday commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence awarded to Mahendra Nath Das, whose mercy petition was rejected by the President after a 12-year delay.
A Bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and S.J. Mukhopadaya allowed Das’ plea for commutation on the ground of inordinate delay. He filed the petition against a judgment of the Gauhati High Court, which rejected his challenge.
A fortnight ago the same Bench rejected a similar petition filed by Devender Pal Singh Bhullar on the ground that the plea could not be entertained in cases involving terrorist activities.
Das contended that the delay in deciding his mercy petition and the President giving his assent to the death sentence resulted in excruciating agony and trauma for almost 12 years for no explainable reason.
The prosecution case was that on April 24, 1996, Das beheaded Harakanta Das at Fancy Bazar in Guwahati and surrendered before the police with the victim’s head.
He has been in jail since 1997 after the sessions court ordered his execution the following year. The High Court and the Supreme Court upheld the capital punishment in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Subsequently, Das’ family moved a mercy petition to the then President, K. R Narayanan, in 1999. The plea was finally turned down in May 2011 by the former President, Pratibha Patil.
The High Court on September 8, 2011 dismissed a writ petition filed by Kusumbala Das for commuting her son’s death sentence, holding that she had no locus standi to file it on his behalf.
Then, Das moved the Supreme Court pleading that he had already spent about 14 years in jail during the disposal of his petition for presidential clemency.
‘Step in right direction’
The Asian Centre for Human Rights welcomed the Supreme Court’s order commuting Das’ death sentence. He had been on death row for the last 16 years and the long delay in deciding his mercy plea was considered a ground for commuting the death sentence, it said.
The judgment “is a step in the right direction for eventual abolition of the death penalty. It recognises that life imprisonment remains an equally efficacious form of justice and the death penalty is not the only form of justice,” said ACHR Director Suhas Chakma.