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Rajoana case – Death row commutation can’t be delayed due to pending appeal of co-accused: SC

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New Delhi, Dec 4, 2020-
The Supreme Court on Friday said that once the Centre has decided to recommend a presidential pardon for a convict on death row, pendency of appeal(s) of the co-accused in the apex court cannot become a ground to delay the process.

A bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde and comprising Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian asked the Centre when it would send a proposal under Article 72 of the Constitution to the President to commute the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted in the 1995 assassination case of then Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh.

The Article deals with the President’s power to grant pardon, suspend, remit or commute sentences in certain cases.

The bench noted that on September 7 last year, a letter was sent by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Punjab Chief Secretary to intimate that a proposal would be sent to the President to commute Rajoana’s death sentence.

The Chief Justice cited this MHA letter which said that the release of some prisoners, including Rajoana, was proposed on the 550th birth anniversary of first Sikh master, Guru Nanak Dev.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) KM Nataraj, representing the Centre, told the bench that the proposal was not sent to the President since an appeal of the co-accused in the case is pending.

The bench said: “Pending appeal of other co-accused has no relevance to the decision by the MHA to commute the death sentences of some convicts on the occasion of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev.”

The bench noted that it was not denied that the petitioner has not filed any appeal and thus there was no question of any appeal pending in this court.

The bench pointed out to the Centre’s counsel that the fact of pending appeals at the behest of other co-accused will have no relevance to the proposal intended to be sent for consideration under Article 72.

Rajoana’s mercy petition has been pending for 8 years. The bench gave ASG two weeks’ time to take instructions on Rajoana’s matter, who has been in jail since 1996.

The petition filed through advocate Rupesh Kumar said: “Delay caused by circumstances beyond the prisoners’ control mandates commutation of death sentence. This view has been upheld by a larger bench (4 hon’ble Judges) of this court in the case of Navneet Kaur vs State (2014) 7 SCC 264, wherein the court commuted the death sentence of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar (in the 1993 Delhi bomb blast case) to life imprisonment on the ground of delay of 8 years in disposal of his mercy petition.” (Agency)

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