The Supreme Court Tuesday reserved its verdict on the plea of three assassins of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi seeking commutation of their death sentence to life imprisonment on the grounds of inordinate delay – of nearly 11 years – in deciding their mercy petitions. The government has opposed the plea.

Responding to the plea by the three convicts – V. Sriharan alias Murugan, Perarivalan and Santhan – the government urged the court to reject them, saying that they suffered no agony or dehumanization during the 11 years when their mercy petitions were pending with the president.

Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati told a bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh that the petition was not covered by its Jan 21 verdict that said that inordinate, unexplained, unreasonable delay was a ground for commuting death sentence into life imprisonment.

All through these 11 years, the three assassins were living a full life by holding music shows, art exhibitions and other recreational activities in the jail, he said.

At this, Chief Justice Sathasivam observed: “This shows they were not hardened criminals.”

Wondering why the three require the intervention of the apex court on the grounds of torture and dehumanised life, Vahanvati said that in their mercy petition filed April 26, 2000, there was not even an iota of remorse for their action of killing the former prime minister and they even justified it.

He said that this absence of remorse assumes serious connotation because their mercy petition to the president was made soon after their similar plea was rejected by the Tamil Nadu governor.

As Vahanvati spoke about the content of the mercy petitions, the court said that they were not talking about it but on the question of delay in deciding the mercy petition by the president.

On the delay of 11 long years in deciding the mercy petition, he said: “I am not covering up the delay… will show what had happened.”

He said the mercy petition was filed April 26, 2000, it remained in the drawer of an officer in the home ministry for four years until a senior officer inquired about it.

“For four years it keeps lying in the drawer of an officer. It is a sad reflection on the state of affairs. As soon as the file was retrieved in 2004, a note was prepared,” he said. All these years, the Bharatiya Janata Party-headed National Democratic Alliance was in power.

Finally in June 2005, the file was sent to the president with recommendation rejecting the mercy petitions. From 2005 till 2011, the file was lying with the president. Finally the home minister called it back in 2011 and a detailed note was prepared and shortly thereafter the president approved the rejection of the mercy petition March 7, 2011, he said.

“Yes there was delay, but it was not unexplained or unreasonable” Vahanvati told the court urging it to “look at the totality of the facts of the case”.

“Delay is not such which entitles them (assassins) the benefit of your Lordship’s judgment (of Jan 21),” Vahanvati argued.

Appearing for the three death row convicts, senior counsel Yug Chaudhary said: “Delay per se is torture. I don’t have to prove torture.”

Chaudhary told the court that they killed Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 on account of a personal grudge stemming from the IPKF’s actions in dealing with Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The assassins were convicted by the TADA court in January 1998 and were awarded death sentence. Their death sentence was confirmed by the apex court May 11, 1999.

In August 2012, their mercy petitions were rejected but as the date of their execution was fixed, the Madras High Court intervened and the execution of the death sentences was stayed.

Subsequently on a plea by MDMK leader Vaiko, the matter before the Madras High Court was transferred to the Supreme Court. IANS