New Delhi, May 27: Six years after the Supreme Court ruled that inordinate delay in deciding upon mercy petitions will result in commutation of death sentence, the apex court on Wednesday sought the Centre’s reply on a plea seeking direction to the government to frame specific procedure, rules and guidelines for timely disposal of mercy petitions.

There is currently no time limit for disposing clemency pleas filed before the President.

Hearing a petition filed by Shiv Kumar Tripathi in public interest, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde said it was keen to explore the possibility of setting a time limit for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the nodal Ministry dealing with clemency appeals, to give its recommendation to the President, The Hindustan Times reported.

The bench, also comprising Justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, clarified that this exercise will be limited to the role played by Government and not the action of the President in disposing of the mercy pleas. The Centre has been asked to file its response in four weeks.

A similar exercise was undertaken by the Supreme Court in 2014 in the case of Shatrughan Chauhan v Union of India. It became a landmark case as the Court released 15 death row convicts after noting “inordinate delay” in disposal of their mercy petitions. Back then, the Court was asked to lay down guidelines for the timely disposal of mercy petitions filed before the President under Article 72 and before the Governor under Article 161, but it simply refused.

The judges in Shatrughan Chauhan said, “Although, no time frame can be set for the President for disposal of the mercy petition but we can certainly request the concerned Ministry to follow its own rules rigorously which can reduce, to a large extent, the delay caused.”

According to Anup Surendranath, Assistant Professor of Law and Executive Director of Project 39A at Delhi’s National Law University, the Supreme Court’s latest move is uncalled for. Based on Project 39A’s extensive work on death penalty, he explained, “There are MHA guidelines already which require the Centre to call for material and consider peculiarities of each case before formulating their advice to the President. These documents have to come from a variety of sources, including states and prison authorities. Artificially imposing a time limit on the Centre will preclude a proper and detailed consideration of mercy pleas.”

The petition by Tripathi has stressed on the need for guidelines in the interest of transparency. It said, “A fair procedure is the natural demand of Article 21 and no procedure itself indicates the possibility of arbitrary exercise of the power.”

At present, broad guidelines prescribed by MHA for deciding mercy petitions relate to personality of the accused such as age, sex or mental state of the accused, circumstances of the case, conduct of the offender, medical abnormality falling short of legal insanity, difference of opinion between High Court judges, appearance of fresh evidence, and delay in investigation or trial.

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