Mercy Petitions: Right to Life and Liberty

On January 28, 2014, the Apex Court in Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India concluded that the inordinate delay in the rejection of mercy petition of convicts awaiting death penalty amounts to torture. Such torture, in itself, is a sufficient basis to commute the sentence of death to life imprisonment. This decision does not create new jurisprudence, instead, clarifies the content and application of earlier judgments. However, the decision has been lauded greatly by legal scholars and humanitarians alike. This article seeks to examine the progressive nature of the decision and the link between mercy petitions and right to life and liberty.

Death Penalty is considered to be an exception to the principle that human life should be respected. In its recent judgment of Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India, the Apex Court takes a progressive approach, by empathising with the plight of inmates awaiting their death for several years.

The question whether a delay in execution of a death sentence leads to commutation of the same has continuously plagued the judiciary. A brief look at the past jurisprudence in this matter reveals that the position of law in this regard was never concrete. In T.N. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu, the Court held that a delay exceeding two years would entitle any person on death row to have his sentence commuted to that of life imprisonment.  This was followed by Sher Singh and Others v. State of Punjab in which the Court realized that there should not exist a time bar of two years because often, more than two years elapse before death sentence isfinally executed. But in Javed Ahmed Abdul Hamid Pawala v. State of Maharashtra, the Court upheld its decision in Vatheeswaran case and held that a delay of more than two years would entitle a person to a commutation of the death sentence imposed on him. Finally, in Triveniben v. State of Gujarat, the Court overruled its decision in Vatheeswaran case with respect to the two year time bar. It said that the period of delay should be computed from the date when the apex court pronounces its decision.  But, in 2013, in Devender Pal Singh Bhullar v. State of NCT of Delhi, the Supreme Court concluded that those sentenced to death incases of terrorist offences should not be allowed to invoke the argument about inordinate delay for commutation of death sentence. Such an anomalyled to a further question: whether such differentiation between convicts of terrorist offences andnon-terrorist offences was valid. This controversy was finally resolved in ShatrughanChauhan v Union of India, where the Court held that the classification of terrorist and non-terrorist offences in the context of inordinate delay in disposing of mercy petitions is constitutionally invalid.

Shatrughan Chauhan’s decision clearly depicts that the Supreme Court has taken the stand that the fundamental rights of all individuals need to be protected, whatever their past may be. An individual cannot be deprived of the most crucial right to life and liberty. Further. The Court held that the Executive has to give due regard to ‘supervening events’ while deciding mercy petitions. Supervening events are those which occur between the confirmation of the death sentence by the Supreme Court and the actual hanging of the convict. Article 21 provides the necessary legal basis for taking into account these events, as under this provision, every prisoner has a right to life and personal liberty till his hanging. It was argued by the government that this decision violates the principle of separation of power as it would allow the Court to grant mercy to those people whose mercy petitions have been rejected by the President. However, the decision basically means that the Court is competent to examine whether the rights of the death row convicts have been violated by the executive, by causing inordinate delay or not.Accepting the argument of the government would indicate that the court is not competent to grant relief to an individual for a purported violation of Article 21. The court also clarified that the gravity of the crime did not in any way compensate for the gross violation of fundamental rights incurred by an unexplained delay in disposal of mercy proceedings.

This is a huge step in protecting the rights of those death-row prisoners who have suffered injustice and discrimination in the hands of the executive and the judiciary.

Apart from giving a landmark judgment which clarified the position with respect to delay in granting or rejecting mercy petitions, the Supreme Court also laid down a number of guidelines to safeguard the interests of the prisoners. The court termed solitary confinement in cells before rejection of mercy petition to be unconstitutional. Further, the court emphasised that the convict and his family is to be informed of the decision of the President or Governor to reject the mercy petition. A minimum period of 14 days is to be stipulated between the rejection of the petition and the execution, providing the convict time to mentally prepare himself and meet his family members. Further, regular medical examination of the prisoners was also made compulsory, in furtherance of Section 53 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The execution of a prisoner who is not in a mentally or physically fit state was also prohibited. Thus, the Apex Court, through this judgment, strengthened the belief that the judiciary is the guardian of fundamental rights. The decision may be a small step for the judiciary, but it is a giant leap for mankind.

This post has been authored by Upasana Chauhan and Gauri Pillai, students at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences and members of the NUJS Constitutional Law Society. 

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