The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved its verdict on the plea of death row convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case seeking commutation of their sentence to life imprisonment, which was vehemently opposed by the Centre.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief justice P Sathasivam reserved the order after hearing the arguments of counsel appearing for three convicts -- Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, and Attorney General G E Vahanvati who represented the central government.
The AG contended that it was not a fit case for the apex court to commute death sentence on the ground of delay in deciding mercy plea. Admitting that there has been delay in deciding the mercy petitions, Vahanvati, however, contended that the delay was not unreasonable, unexplainable and unconscionable to commute death penalty.
He further submitted that the apex court's recent verdict, holding that inordinate and inexplicable delay can be ground for commutation, is not applicable in this case as the condemned prisoners did not have to go through agony, torture and dehumanising experience as it was held in the January 21 judgment.
The counsel, appearing for the convicts, opposed the arguments of Vahanvati, saying that they have suffered due to the delay by the government in deciding the mercy petitions and the apex court should intervene and commute their death sentence to life term.
The convicts, in their petition, submitted that mercy plea of other condemned prisoners, which were filed after them, were decided but their petitions were kept pending by the government.
The apex court had in May 2012 decided to adjudicate the petitions of Rajiv Gandhi killers against their death penalty and had directed that their plea, pending with the Madras high court, be sent to it.
The court had passed the order on a petition by one L K Venkat seeking transfer of their plea out of Tamil Nadu on the ground that free and fair hearing would not be possible in the state due to the surcharged atmosphere in favour of the convicts.
The Madras high court had earlier stayed their hanging slated for September 9, 2011 and issued notice to the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government.
Their main contention was that the delay of 11 years and four months in disposal of the mercy petitions 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 apex court had on January 21 ruled that delay by the government in deciding mercy plea of death row convicts can be a ground for commuting their sentence and had granted life to 15 condemned prisoners, including four aides of forest brigand Veerappan.
The court had held that prolonging execution of capital sentence has a "dehumanising effect" on condemned prisoners who have to face the "agony" of waiting for years under the shadow of death during the pendency of their mercy plea.