Wednesday, February 19, 2014

No hanging, this time!

The Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement yesterday, commuted the death sentences of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins, Murugan, Santhan and Periavelan to life imprisonment. The reason cited was the inordinate delay of 11 years, in giving a decision on their mercy petitions.  The Chief Justice said "...delay violates the requirement of a fair, just and reasonable procedure. Regardless and independent of the suffering it causes, delay makes the process of execution of death sentence unfair, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious and thereby, violates procedural due process guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and the dehumanizing effect is presumed in such cases." This decision was expected after the earlier Supreme Court decision on, January 21st, commuting the death penalty of 15 prisoners, citing the same reason, viz., the inordinate delay in a decision on their mercy petitions. Both these decisions have been hailed as a victory by the opponents of the death penalty. However,unlike the beneficiaries of the January 21st decision, the nature of the crime, i.e. the political assassination of a popular leader, and a former prime minister, as well as the fact that the assasination was a plot by the LTTE,  have led to polarised and highly charged opinions on both sides in the present case. In Tamil Nadu, longstanding sympathy for Srilankan Tamils, as well as the age of the assassins at the time of the crime, (two were 19 and one 24),  and their model conduct in prison, have led to jubilation at the verdict. Others find this a little mystifying.

A further layer has been added by  today's decision by the Tamil Nadu government of Jayalalitha, a known foe of the LTTE, to let the death row convicts as well as others who have been awarded life imprisonment  in the same case, walk free. A plus point in this, could be the reunion of families, some of whom have never accepted that their kin were involved in the conspiracy, and others who argued that they were bit players, the principal culprits being already dead. (The actual assassin, Dhanu, died in the suicide attack,  and her handler, the  One eyed Jack, Sivarasan, committed suicide by consuming the famed LTTE cyanide tablets when the police closed in on the conspirators in a rented house in Bangalore 22 years ago.) A particularly sad case is that of Harithra, the daughter of Nalini and Murugan, who has never seen her parents outside jail. However, even if the central government accepts the freeing of the convicts, life outside jail may still turn out to be rough for the releasees. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, it will be good if the right lessons are extended to other cases, like that of Afzhal Guru, where political considerations justified a hanging, that was  not warranted by the facts of the case.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.