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25 February, 2014

Law’s agonising delays

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Nearly 23 years after the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the fate of seven persons convicted in connection with the crime still remains uncertain, although, mercifully, they have been spared the gallows.

The prolonged delay in the conclusion of the legal process in this case contrasts sharply with the speedy end of those relating to the assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi and prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The Mahatma was shot dead in New Delhi on January 30, 1948, less than six months after the country gained freedom. Investigators concluded that, apart from Nathuram Vinayak Godse, who had pulled the trigger, 11 others, including Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, freedom fighter and Hindutva ideologue, were involved in the conspiracy that led to the murder. One accused turned approver and was pardoned.

In the judgment pronounced on February 10, 1949, the trial court gave Godse and another accused, Narayan Apte, the death sentence and jail terms to some others. Savarkar was given the benefit of doubt and acquitted.

The East Punjab High Court, which heard the appeals, too acted with due dispatch. It acquitted one accused and confirmed the sentences on the others. Godse and Apte were executed on November 15, 1949.

Prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, members of her security staff, on October 31, 1984. Other members of the security staff fired at them, killing Beant Singh on the spot and injuring Satwant Singh. The prosecution alleged that a third person, Kehar Singh, was also involved in the conspiracy to kill Mrs Gandhi.

The trial court held both Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh guilty and sentenced them to death. The Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court upheld the sentences, and both were hanged on January 6, 1989.

Rajiv Gandhi was killed in an explosion at Sriperumpudur, near Chennai, on May 21, 1991 while on an election tour. The explosion was set off by Dhanu, a woman suicide bomber sent by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which was involved in a civil war to carve out an independent Tamil state from the island nation of Sri Lanka. Dhanu too was killed in the explosion. LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran and his top aides, who figured among the 41 accused mentioned in the charge-sheet prepared by the special investigation team (SIT), were never caught. They took their own lives or were killed in the civil war.

A total of 26 persons faced trial. All of them, except perhaps Nalini, who was said to be a member of the squad the LTTE had sent to India, and her husband, Murugan alias Sriharan, played only a peripheral role in the crime. Since the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act was invoked, investigators could keep the accused in custody continuously for a long period, as against 15 days permitted under the normal law, and their confessions to the police could be admitted as evidence.

The trial court found all the 26 accused guilty and awarded the death penalty. Being a TADA case, only the Supreme Court was competent to entertain appeals. On May 11, 1999, a bench, presided over by Justice KT Thomas, confirmed the death sentence on four of the accused and reduced the sentence on the others to various terms of imprisonment.

Nalini had given birth to a girl while in custody. The government, accepting the Gandhi family’s plea, commuted her sentence to life term.

The fate of the other condemned prisoners remained uncertain for more than a decade as three successive presidents, KR Narayanan, APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil, took no action on their mercy petitions. President Pranab Mukherji rejected their petitions but the Supreme Court quickly stepped in and commuted the death sentence.

The apex court, which had ruled a few days earlier that inordinate, unexplained and agonising delays in deciding on mercy petitions would be ground for commutation, pointed out that in this case the petitions had remained unattended for more than 11 years.

Following the Supreme Court judgment, the Tamil Nadu government decided to release Nalini and the three others, who have been in prison for more than two decades, in keeping with the long standing practice of releasing lifers after 14 years. The decision led to a storm of protests from Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, son of the slain leader.

At the instance of the Centre, the Supreme Court intervened again, and directed Tamil Nadu not to release the convicts until it examined the matter.

The history of this case underscores the need for both the judicial and executive branches to streamline their procedures so as to ensure speedy conclusion of the process of law. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 25, 2014

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