Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde on Thursday expressed alarm about trial courts issuing death warrants in undue haste without offering condemned prisoners a chance to exhaust their efforts for commutation or clemency.
Heading a three-judge Bench, Justice Bobde sought to know from Solicitor General Tushar Mehta as to why ‘black warrants’ were being issued in a hurry despite judgments of the Supreme Court specifying that condemned men ought to be allowed the legal and administrative remedies available to them under the Constitution.
The court referred to its May 2015 judgment, which had quoted a saying ascribed to Emperor Ashoka that the ‘state should not punish with vengeance’.
“Despite reported judgments, how is it that such orders [issuance of ‘black warrants’] are passed? Judicial process cannot go on like this,” Justice Bobde addressed Mr. Mehta.
Mr. Mehta agreed that the punishment involved, death, was irreversible.
Thursday’s courtroom exchange is significant because the government has recently asked the apex court to frame “victim and society centric” guidelines to prevent delays in the execution of condemned prisoners. The plea for new guidelines referred to how the convicts in the Nirbhaya case have “misused” the maze-like legal process in death penalty cases to delay the execution of their death sentences.
On Thursday, the CJI’s observations came while staying the operation of a ‘black warrant’ issued by a Surat court against Anil Surendrasingh Yadav, who has been sentenced to death under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act for the rape and murder of a three-year-old at Surat in October 2018. The court has issued notice to the Gujarat government on the appeal filed by Yadav challenging the death sentence.
Senior advocate Aparajita Singh, for Yadav, submitted that the State High Court had rejected his appeal in December 2019. Shortly after, the Surat court had issued a death warrant for carrying out the execution in January 2020.
Ms. Singh said the death warrant was violative of the basic rights of the convict to appeal to the Supreme Court. The rules allow a convict 60 days to file his appeal before the final court. The death warrant orders his execution in 33 days. Ms. Singh argued that the death warrant was issued before the expiry of the period of limitation for filing an appeal in the Supreme Court.
In this context, Ms. Singh drew Justice Bobde’s attention to the case of Shabnam and Salim of Uttar Pradesh. In 2010, the trial court had found the duo guilty of murdering seven members of Shabnam’s family. The State High Court had confirmed their death sentence in 2015. Their appeal was dismissed by the apex court on May 15, 2015. Merely six days later, the trial court issued their death warrants without pausing to see if the convicts would file a review petition in the apex court.
Staying that death warrant, the Supreme Court had in a judgment, on May 25, 2015, stressed the importance of not acting in haste in death penalty cases as “once a death sentence is executed, that results in taking away the life of the convict. If it is found thereafter that such a sentence was not warranted, that would be of no use as the life of that person cannot be brought back”. The court had advised trial courts to follow due procedure rather than act in a manner which is “arbitrary, fanciful or oppressive”.