Whether or not the Madras High Court has erred in staying the execution of T Suthethiraja alias Santhan, Sriharan alias Murugan and G Pasarivalan alias Arivudeath, held guilty for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the summer of 1991 is a matter of debate among jurists. But on the face of it, the court cannot be faulted for taking note of the petition filed by the three men who, after spending more than a decade on death row have been told that their mercy petition to the President has been rejected, are now seeking clemency on the ground that much too long a time has transpired since their verdict was handed down. In fact, the three condemned men and their fourth associate, Nalini, who has been granted clemency, have been in prison for two decades. A person sentenced to life imprisonment for murder would normally be entitled for remission after 20 years. It could be argued that the assassination of a Prime Minister is not just any murder case, and hence the fact that 11 years have lapsed since the conviction is irrelevant: Retribution demands that they should pay with their lives for the horrendous crime they committed.
Those who take this view should also bear in mind that retribution, as justice, should be both swift and decisive. The purpose of retribution as a form of punishment and deterrent is defeated if it is delayed for years (in this case for more than a decade) by an indecisive political leadership which cannot make up its mind whether those found guilty of committing a capital offence are deserving of the state's mercy. For although mercy petitions are filed with the President, it is the Government which takes the decision and conveys it to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Tragically, two successive regimes, the NDA and the UPA, failed to act decisively while dealing with mercy petitions, because of which a large number of death row convicts have been left dangling between hope and despair. Now that the Government has decided to clear the pending files, it could prove to be a little too late, allowing death row convicts to raise issues that the courts cannot entirely ignore, as was demonstrated on Tuesday in Chennai.
That the debate over inordinate delays in dealing with mercy petitions will only get increasingly intense in the coming days is indicated by the fact that the Madras High Court's order is the third of its kind. Tuesday's intervention follows similar orders by the Supreme Court in the case of Devender Pal Singh Bhullar and by the Guwahati High Court in the case of MN Das. In all three cases, the judiciary has essentially raised the issue of the executive's lapse in expeditiously dealing with mercy petitions. The Supreme Court has in the past mentioned the need for fixing the period of time that can be allowed to the executive for deciding whether or not convicts are deserving of mercy. That should be done, or else the death penalty should be removed from the statute book. It is a mockery of the law if the death penalty is applied to sentences meted out to perpetrators of heinous crimes and then the sentence is kept in abeyance for decades simply because the executive is either reluctant to carry out the punishment or indifferent to the need to punish criminals.