The Apex court held that solitary confinement of a death convict and other prisoners is unconstitutional.

Fifteen death-row prisoners, whose mercy petitions were rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee, received commutation to life imprisonment with the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruling that inordinate delays ranging from seven to 11 years in the disposal of their pleas, as well as psychiatric conditions developed during incarceration, are grounds for clemency.

A Bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shivakirti Singh also ruled against solitary confinement of death row prisoners. It said the convicts should be informed at least 14 days before the execution, making a last family reunion mandatory.

The Bench also overturned an earlier judgment which drew a distinction between murders related to terrorism and others.

Tuesday’s judgment commutes the sentences of forest bandit Veerappan’s aides Bilavendran, Simon, Gnanprakasam and Madiah, convicted for killing 22 police officers, as the court held that all kinds of clemency petitions were governed by the same criteria. Sundar Singh, sentenced for murdering five family members, and Maganlal Barela, in jail for killing his five daughters, were granted clemency in view of their psychiatric condition.

Convicts must be informed 14 days before execution: SC

In its order commuting 15 death sentences to life terms, the Supreme Court has said that death row convicts should be informed at least 14 days before the execution, making a last family reunion mandatory.

Last year, Mohammad Azfal Guru, convicted for the December 13, 2001, attack on Parliament, was controversially executed without informing his family members.

“Keeping a convict in suspense while consideration of his mercy petition by the President/Governor for many years is certainly an agony for him/her,” Chief Justice P. Sathasivam wrote in his judgment.

In the cases where it granted clemency citing psychiatric conditions, the Bench said: “The directions of the United Nations International Conventions, of which India is a party clearly show that insanity/ mental illness/schizophrenia is a crucial supervening circumstance, which should be considered by this Court in deciding whether in the facts and circumstances of the case death sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment.”

Agan Lal Barela, brother of Maganlal, who is in Jabalpur Central Jail for killing his five daughters in 2010, expressed relief but seemed unclear about his brother’s future. “Will the government really not kill him?” he asked The Hindu. “Will they keep him in jail until he dies?”

Devinderpal Bhullar, sentenced for attempting to assassinate former Youth Congress chief Maninder Singh Bitta, has been admitted to the Institute for Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences in Delhi for the past two years, where doctors have said that he is suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies.

Speaking to The Hindu from Vancouver, Bhullar’s wife, Navneet Kaur Bhullar, said the Supreme Court “has understood the plight of the family members and the prisoners who waited endlessly.”

(With Pheroze Vincent in Bhopal, and Chander Suta Dogra, Chandigarh)