'Delay of mercy petition dehumanising'

“Since it is well established that Article 21 of the Constitution does not end with the pronouncement of sentence but extends to the stage of execution of that sentence, prolonged delay in execution of sentence of death has a dehumanising effect on the accused.

Delay caused by circumstances beyond the prisoners’ control mandates commutation of death sentence,” said a Supreme Court bench on Tuesday while converting the death sentence of 17 convicts to life term.

The court said though guidelines to define the contours of the power under Article 72 (power of the President to grant pardon) and 161 (power of the Governor to grant pardon) cannot be laid down, the Central government can set out certain criteria in the form of a circular to decide mercy petitions.

Noting that in a particular case as many as 14 years were taken to decide the mercy petition, the court accepted that no time limit can be fixed for the governor and the President, but said it is the duty of the executive to expedite the matter at every stage, including calling for the records, orders and documents filed in the court, preparation of the note for approval of the minister concerned and the ultimate decision of the Constitutional authorities.

The court said keeping a convict in suspense in view of pendency of mercy petition for many years was certainly an agony for him, and the rejection of the clemency petition cannot be an excuse for the agonising delay irrespective of the gravity of his offence.

The petitioners, including People Union for Democratic Rights, raised several supervening circumstances warranting commutation of death penalty to life term.

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