In a temporary relief to four aides of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, who were to be hanged for killing 22 police personnel in a landmine blast after rejection of their mercy plea by the President, the Supreme Court today stayed the execution of their sentence.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir agreed to hear their plea for commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of eight year delay in deciding their mercy plea. The case will be heard on Wednesday.
"In the meantime, the execution of death sentence of four convicts shall remain stayed," a bench also comprising justices A R Dave and Vikramajit Sen said.
Veerappan's elder brother Gnanaprakash and his aides Simon, Meesekar Madaiah and Bilavendran were awarded death sentence in 2004 in connection with a landmine blast at Palar in Karnataka in 1993 in which 22 police personnel were killed.
Their mercy petition was rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee on February 13 and they are presently lodged in a jail in Belgaum in Karnataka.
A TADA court in Mysore had in 2001 sentenced them to life term which was enhanced to death sentence by the apex court.
Gang leader Veerappan was killed in an encounter with the Tamil Nadu Police in October 2004.
Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for death convicts, said their execution should be stayed as another apex court bench had reserved its order on a plea for commuting death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of delay in deciding mercy plea.
He was referring to the petitions filed by two condemned prisoners, Devender Pal Singh Bhullar and M N Das, on whose plea for commutation of capital punishment to life term on the ground of delay, the apex court reserved its verdict in April last year.
During the brief hearing, the apex court said if it will issue notice, it will have to hear the matter entirely.
Further, the Chief Justice said there are two options-- either this bench will have to hear the matter or it will have to refer to the bench which has been seized with the issue of mercy petition.
The bench said hearing this matter may also have a bearing on the petitions filed by the death row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case against the rejection of their mercy petition.
The apex court had on May 1 last year had decided to adjudicate itself the pleas of Rajiv Gandhi killers--
Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan alias Arivu-- against their death penalty due to the delay of over 11 years in deciding their mercy petitions by the President.
The Madras High Court had earlier stayed their hanging and had issued notices to the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government.
Urging the apex court to intervene, the four death convicts pleaded that a decision on their mercy petition has been delayed by 9 years and as per its earlier order they are entitled to seek remedy for undue long delay in the execution of the sentence of death.
"Nine years delay in disposal of the petitioners' mercy petitions has given them a right to approach this Court or the High Court to seek a commutation of the sentence of death," the petition said.