The Rajiv Gandhi Assasination Verdict: Spare them from the gallows

Srinivas Nyapathy Writes                                                          August 31, 2011       

The resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly against the scheduled hanging of three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and the Madras High Court’s stay on their executions have started off  raging debates on the death sentences and the long delays in deciding the mercy petitions.

The three convicts , Murugan, Santhan and Arivu —got a reprieve for 8 weeks from the Madras High Court yesterday by contending that their death sentences should be commuted to life in prison due to the 11 years of delay in rejecting  their mercy petitions.
 Of the three, Murugan and Santhan are Sri Lankan Tamils. They were core members of the LTTE team that carried out the ground work for the assassination and Perarivalan ( alias Arivu), an Indian, was charged with buying the battery cells used in the belt bomb worn by the suicide bomber, who carried out the assassination. 
All three were convicted and sentenced to death for murder and criminal conspiracy. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, shook India, coming as it did, days before the country was going to the polls and during the heat of the Election campaigning. 
This gruesome, coldblooded crime, deserves the harshest punishment. Having said that, sending the convicts to the gallows is not a solution, serves no purpose, it doesn’t in anyway help in minimizing or lightening the cruelty of taking another person’s life, in this case, a former Indian Prime Minister himself. Today , in a modern system of criminal justice,  Capital Punishment has no place.
In the proceedings at the Madras High Court, The argument from the convicts side has been that, if the delay in deciding the mercy petition was excessive or unjustified then, the execution of death sentence would amount to harsh and inhuman punishment violating Article 21 and that the court should commute the death sentence.
Two similar pleas made by Afzal Guru, sentenced to death for the December 13, 2001, terror attack on Parliament, and Devender Pal Singh Bhullar,  facing gallows for the 1993 bomb attack on the then Youth Congress leader MS Bitta are a case in point, All these death row convicts have cited apex court  verdicts which said delays over mercy pleas would entail commutation of the death sentences. However, the Supreme Court has not specified the period of delay.
Only 52 people ( Official figures ) have been executed since Independence. There have hardly been any executions in the recent past, as almost 18 mercy petitions are still pending with the Union Home Ministry or the President. Other than “Auto”Shankar’s  execution in Salem in 1995, there has only been One execution , that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee in 2004.
Senior advocates representing the three death row convicts, at Madras HC, contended that the delay rendered the death penalty imposed on them illegal and unconstitutional. Ram Jethmalani, senior counsel, arguing for Murugan, submitted that every country in Europe was free from death penalty. Colin Gonsalves, counsel for Perarivalan, said as per Article 21, no person should be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. Taking 11 years for disposing of the mercy petition was not a procedure established by law.
The Hindu in an editorial said , “Globally, an increasing number of countries are tending towards abolition of the death penalty. Ninety-six have done away with it, and 34 are abolitionist in practice by observing official or unofficial moratoria on executions. India too has not carried out any legal execution since 2004, though every year the courts add substantially to the numbers who face the threat of execution. That the government is suddenly eager to fast-track death penalties that it has sat on for years may be no coincidence. But hanging a few condemned prisoners is not going to redeem the UPA in the eyes of the nation. The case of the three LTTE operatives on death row at Vellore offers an opportunity to put an end to the death penalty without in any way going soft on their crimes. The government must seize it by commuting their sentences to life, extending this to all other death row prisoners as well.”
As it stands now, the three convicts  got a reprieve on Tuesday, with the Madras High Court staying their execution, which was due to be carried out on September 9.
The Division Bench said, as the matter involved the consideration of a question of law, the petitions were being admitted and there would be an interim injunction. The Bench said the counter should be filed in eight weeks.
As soon as the order was dictated in the court hall, there were joyous shouts inside and outside. Slogans were raised on the court premises. Crackers were burst in front of the court.
The accused, is going through unbearable mental agony when the mercy petition is kept aside in cold storage. The convict and his family die each minute  and every minute, as the decision is delayed and  prolonged.. Capital punishment should be  done away with, as early as it can be. 
Abandon those gallows for good.

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