SC commutes sentence of Rajiv Gandhi killers after 11 years

India's Supreme Court, following up on its recent precedent-setting judgement that convicts sentenced to death cannot be held endlessly in prison while the President sits on their mercy petitions, today commuted the death sentence of three men convicted of killing former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to a life term.

The three convicts - Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan – have been languishing on death row for the last 11 years.

A bench of the apex court headed by Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam, along with Justices Ranjan Gogoi and S K Singh rejected the union government's submission that there was no unreasonable delay in deciding their mercy plea.

Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati, acting for the union government, came up with the view that the in deciding their mercy petition was not painful for them as they were ''enjoying life'' behind bars.

Pronouncing the ruling, Chief Justice Sathasivam said, "It is definitely not a pleasure for this court to interfere with the powers of the President. We implore upon the government to advise the President so that mercy petitions can be disposed of at the earliest."

The court did not accept the government's view that the convicts do not deserve mercy.

Today's verdict follows the Supreme Court's 21 January precedent-setting judgement while commuting the death sentences of 15 convicts, saying that "inordinate and inexplicable" delays in carrying out executions were grounds for reducing their original punishment (See: SC commutes death sentence of 15 on grounds of 'inordinate delay').

Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan were convicted in 1998 for Gandhi's assassination in 1991. Their mercy petition was sent to the President of India, the last stage in the process of appeals, in 2000 and was rejected 11 years later. But their hanging was further stayed in 2011 on the orders of the Madras High Court.

Murugan's wife Nalini was also sentenced to death but her sentence was commuted to life on the intervention of Rajiv Gandhi's widow Sonia Gandhi.