SC backs MHA call to defer Rajoana mercy plea

Citing Home Ministry view that a verdict will compromise national security, SC directs government to deal with mercy petition as and when it deems necessary; Rajoana on death row since 2007; petition pending since 2012

May 03, 2023 02:08 pm | Updated May 04, 2023 07:50 am IST - NEW DELHI:

File photo of Balwant Singh Rajoana

File photo of Balwant Singh Rajoana | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Supreme Court on Wednesday found it inappropriate to direct the government to commute the death penalty of Balwant Singh Rajoana — who is on death row for the 1995 assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh — in the face of the Home Ministry’s conclusion that a decision on the mercy petition now would compromise national security.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs, upon material consideration of various reports from its different branches, has come to the conclusion that the consideration may be deferred as it could have an impact of compromising the security of the nation or creating law and order situation,” a three-judge Bench of Justices B.R. Gavai, Vikram Nath and Sanjay Karol observed in a judgment.

Justice Nath, who authored the verdict, said that it was not up to the court to “delve” on the Ministry’s decision to defer a decision on the clemency plea. “It is within the domain of the executive to take a call on such sensitive issues. As such, this court does not deem it appropriate to issue any further directions,” the court observed.

Declining plea

The judgment said that the Ministry’s call to postpone its decision on the mercy petition actually amounted to declining the plea for the time being.

“It is, however, directed that the competent authority, in due course of time, would again as and when it is deemed necessary, may deal with the mercy petition, and take a further decision,” the court ordered.

The Bench further dismissed Rajoana’s argument that his death sentence should be commuted to life due to the continuing delay on a mercy plea decision. He had argued that the mercy petition was preferred in March 2012, and had been pending for a decade.

‘No inordinate delay’

The court said that it was the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee which had moved the mercy petition in 2012. “The petitioner himself never submitted any mercy petition,” Justice Nath observed.

Besides, the court referred to a Home Ministry communication that a decision on the mercy plea was kept on hold as appeals filed by his co-accused were pending in the Supreme Court.

“Thus, it cannot be alleged that there has been an inordinate delay in disposal of the mercy petition,” the judgment said.

Plea timeline

Rajoana has been on death row since 2007. The mercy petition had remained in limbo despite the government’s decision in 2019 to spare his life in commemoration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. The apex court had earlier remarked during hearings that the law was settled on the point that once the government decided to recommend a Presidential pardon for a condemned man, the pendency of appeals in the Supreme Court of his co-accused would not come in the way.

In a hearing in 2021, the Centre had specifically drawn the court’s attention to the gravity of the facts in the cas,e while highlighting that Rajoana was “accused of the killing of a former Punjab Chief Minister”. It had said that there were charges of involvement of Khalistani elements in the crime, adding that the appeals of other co-accused were pending in the apex court.

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