PUCL statement on the Supreme Court’s commutation of death sentence of Rajiv Gandhi assassination prisoners and setting constitutional benchmarks on remission

February 18, 2014


18th February, 2014


PUCL welcomes the historic and landmark ruling of the Supreme Court today (18th February, 2014) commuting to life sentence the death penalties awarded to Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. This judgment of the Supreme Court, and the 21st January, 2014 judgment in `Shatrugan Chauhan vs Union of India’ marks a watershed in the evolution of death penalty jurisprudence in India and restores the primacy of a constitutional vision imbued with a sense of humanity and compassion. The ruling also emphasizes an appreciation of the right to life in the context of “[the] brooding horror haunting the prisoner in the condemned cells for years” as a consequence of prolonged delay in deciding mercy petitions.

The unanimous ruling delivered by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, P. Sadasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh built on the principles evolved in `Shatrugan Chauhan vs Union of India’ saying that the unexplained, undue and inordinate delay of 11 years in rejecting the commutation petitions by the Executive would amount to torture, constituted a violation of Art. 21, the right to life, and is ground enough to commute the death sentences.

The SC also rejected the most preposterous argument of the Attorney General of India, GE Vahnavati, that there was “not a word of remorse” and that the 3 prisoners were “enjoying life, attending music concerts and were not in any sort of agony”. The SC pointedly emphasized that agony did not mean physical torture and that in law, there was no requirement for the prisoners to prove suffering or to demonstrate the specific ill effects of imprisonment or agony in prison.

Continuing the trend of a visionary, path breaking judicial expansion of human rights law, the SC also held that it was open to the Tamil Nadu Government to consider exercise of powers under sections 432 and 433 Criminal Procedure Code to grant remission to the 3 prisoners if they approached the government for premature release or remission, by following the due procedure of law. By doing so, the SC has demonstrated its ability to stand statesmanlike above the blood thirsty demands for retribution and revenge which has occupied public space and media coverage on death penalty cases in recent times.

The SC’s ruling is a momentous ruling for asserting that human values and humane justice should ultimately be the cornerstones of modern, constitutional India. We hope this will mark a significant step towards eventually abolishing the death penalty altogether from our law books.

Prof. Prabhakar Sinha (National President, PUCL)
Dr. V. Suresh (National General Secretary, PUCL)