This is the fourth time that death warrants have been issued as the earlier three had to deferred pending the exhaustion of legal remedies by the convicts.
After three postponements in six weeks, a Delhi court on Thursday set March 20 as the fresh date for the execution of the four convicts in the Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder case that has witnessed several twists and turns after they received the death sentence in 2013.
Additional Sessions Judge Dharmendra Rana directed that Mukesh Kumar Singh (32), Pawan Gupta (25), Vinay Sharma (26) and Akshay Kumar Singh (31) "be hanged by the neck until they are dead on March 20 at 5.30 am".
All the convicts in the case are to be hanged together in Tihar jail in New Delhi.
The order was pronounced after the lawyers for the Delhi government and the convicts submitted that the condemned prisoners have exhausted all their legal remedies.
A P Singh, the lawyer for the convicts, conceded that there was no legal impediment for the court in proceeding to fix the execution date.
"It is fairly conceded at bar by counsel of convict as well as public prosecutor (appearing for the State) that as of now, there is statutory no bar in exercise of power under 413/414 (issuing death warrant) of the CrPC, rather it is obligatory on the part of the court to discharge the duties cast upon it under the relevant provisions.
"In view of the same, it is directed that convicts shall be hanged by the neck until they are dead on March 20 at 6 am," the court said.
Nirbhaya's mother Asha Devi said their struggle would continue till the time they are hanged and hoped that March 20 will be the final date of hanging.
"The morning of March 20 will be the morning of our lives," Devi told reporters.
She also said that if there is any chance, she would want to see the convicts dying.
"While dying Nirbhaya asked to ensure they get such punishment that such crime is not repeated ever. If there is any chance, I would like to see them die."
The new date for the hanging was fixed even as the Supreme Court said it would examine on March 23 the legal issue arising out of the Nirbhaya case on whether there could be separate hanging in a common crime where there are more than one death row convicts.
"The question is whether there can be separate hanging or whether it has to be simultaneous. We will go into it," said a three-judge bench headed by Justice R Banumathi against the backdrop of the contention by the Centre that the hanging of convicts for a common crime can be carried out separately as and when each one exhaust their legal remedies.
The move by the apex court is not expected to have any bearing on the execution of the four death row convicts on March 20 since they have exhausted all legal remedies.
The apex court was hearing an appeal filed by the Centre and the Delhi government challenging the February 5 order of Delhi High Court which said that the four Nirbhaya case convicts have to be executed simultaneously.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre and Delhi government, told the bench that these convicts have taken justice delivery system for "a ride" and made a "mockery" of it by adopting delaying tactics.
Mehta, who said "credibility of the system is at stake", informed the bench that a trial court has fixed March 20 as the date of execution of the four convicts who have exhausted all their legal remedies.
Taking note of the submission, the bench, also comprising justices Ashok Bhushan and A S Bopanna, posted the plea for arguments on merits on March 23 and made it clear that no adjournment would be given.
During the arguments, Mehta said there was no statutory provision which stipulates that convicts have to be executed simultaneously and as per the law, only trial of a case has to be conducted simultaneously.
"Today, there are four convicts in this case. Tomorrow, there may be a case having 10 or 20 such convicts and they may again delay the execution by moving separate forums at different time," he said, referring to the tactics adopted by the convicts in the Nirbhaya case.
Mehta said pleas filed by Mukesh and Vinay against rejection of their mercy petitions by the President has already been dismissed by the apex court.
"For Mukesh and Vinay, we should be permitted to execute them. There is no need to give any further time to them," he said, adding, "This is not our anxiety to hang somebody. Nobody likes this. Our anxiety is that credibility of the system is at stake".
He said the two other convicts -- Akshay and Pawan -- will now file pleas in the top court challenging rejection of their mercy petitions and in this scenario, the authorities should be allowed to execute Mukesh and Vinay.
"It is de-humanising to keep them under such threat," Mehta said.
When the bench said it would hear the matter on merits on March 23, Mehta said, "These convicts have taken the system for a ride. Please say that whosoever of them want to file for whatsoever remedy, they should do it before March 20".
To this, the bench said, "We will not say this. We will hear the matter on March 23".
The first date of execution--January 22--fixed on January 7 was postponed by the court to February 1. But on January 31, the court indefinitely postponed the hanging. On February 17, the court again issued fresh date for execution of death warrants for March 3 but just one day before it was deferred till further orders.
A Delhi court on September 13, 2013 awarded the death sentence to the four convicts, less than one year after the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern, who came to be known as 'Nirbhaya' (fearless), was gang-raped and savagely assaulted on the night of December 16, 2012 in a moving bus in south Delhi. She died of her injuries a fortnight later in a Singapore hospital.
Review petitions and curative petitions were then filed in a staggered manner in the Supreme Court against the Delhi high court order on March 13, 2014 confirming the death sentence.
The last option of mercy petition before the President to escape the gallows was also exercised by the convicts one by one but they all stand dismissed.