Death row trio says 11-year delay is inhuman; eight weeks for Centre to reply

The three condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case got a reprieve on Tuesday, with the Madras High Court staying their execution, due to be carried out on September 9.

A Division Bench, comprising Justices C. Nagappan and M. Sathyanarayanan, passed the interim order on petitions by Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan. As the matter involved the consideration of a question of law, the petitions were being admitted and there would be an interim injunction, the Bench said.

Additional Solicitor-General M. Ravindran and Advocate-General A. Navaneethakrishnan took notice for the Central and State governments. The Bench said the counter should be filed in eight weeks.

As soon as the order was dictated in the court hall, there were joyous shouts inside and outside.

Slogans were raised on the court premises. Crackers were burst in front of the court.

The petitioners' main contention was that the delay in disposal of the mercy petitions by 11 years and four months made the execution of the death sentence “unduly harsh and excessive,” amounting to violation of their right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. The sentence of death after 20 years of incarceration was “unjust and inhuman.”

The High Court's — and, eventually, Supreme Court's — ruling on the present matter will have implications for other high profile convicts on death row, including Afzal Guru and Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar, who have cited the lengthy delay in the disposal of their own mercy petitions as grounds for clemency.

Santhan and Murugan submitted that the jurisprudence in this issue was clearly developed by the Supreme Court. The consistent position was that if the delay was shown to be excessive and unjustified in the facts of the case, execution of the death sentence would amount to harsh and inhuman punishment violative of Article 21. The court should commute the death sentence.

Senior advocates Ram Jethmalani, R. Vaigai and Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the prisoners, argued that the long delay rendered the death penalty illegal and unconstitutional.

MDMK general secretary Vaiko, Perarivalan's mother Arputhammal and film director and leader of the Naam Tamizhar Iyakkam Seeman were among those present in the court hall.

There was jubilation on the court premises after the order. Members of various organisations raised slogans demanding the abolition of the death penalty.

Fighting back tears, Arputhammal said the three were innocent. They should be allowed to live. She thanked all those who struggled for the cause of her son and those who had brought a resolution in the Legislative Assembly appealing for commutation of their sentence.