Nirbhaya case | Supreme Court to step in if convicts are not hanged on March 20

The Supreme Court on March 5 made it clear that any delay in the scheduled execution of death sentence of the four Nirbhaya gang-rape case convicts on March 20 will see the court itself step in on March 23 to promptly decide the government’s appeal for permission to separately hang them to death.

The assurance from a three-judge Bench led by Justice R. Banumathi came while addressing the government’s apprehension that chances are high that one or other of the four convicts may turn up in court before March 20 with a new plea and further delay the execution.

“I am no astrologer… but they [convicts] will find something to delay the March 20 execution… I am not in a hurry to execute them, but the system is suffering when the punishment keeps getting postponed. The convicts have been taking the system for a ride… Even now, it has been over two years since their review petitions were dismissed by the Supreme Court,” Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta submitted.

At this juncture, Justice Banumathi turned to the convicts’ lawyers to come prepared on March 23 as the court would not entertain any requests for adjournment. The court would examine the government’s appeal to hang them separately even if it involves an “extended hearing” on March 23, Justice Banumathi assured.

The Bench was hearing an appeal filed by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Delhi government for permission to separately hang those among the four convicts who had exhausted their remedies in court and before the President.

The apex court hearing came within an hour of a trial court issuing a fresh death warrant to execute the four men on March 20 at 5.30 a.m. The death warrant was issued after the President rejected the mercy plea of Pawan Gupta, who was the last among the four convicts to seek pardon for the crime of brutally gang-raping a 23-year-old paramedical student in December 2012.

As of now, all the four — Gupta, Mukesh Kumar Singh, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Kumar Singh — have exhausted their available legal and constitutional remedies. Gupta may, however, approach the Supreme Court to challenge the rejection of his mercy plea.

‘Exploitation of system’

The Solicitor-General argued how the convicts have “exploited the system” for all these years to delay their punishment. He found fault with the way the sessions court kept extending their execution dates. He submitted that the Delhi High Court, on February 5, 2020, ordered the convicts to exhaust all their remedies within seven days. The convicts, in turn, defied this order by approaching the apex court and the President. The trial court towed along by deferring their execution dates. The previous death warrant had their execution fixed for March 3. But this had to be put off when Gupta filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court followed by a mercy plea before the President.

Mr. Mehta said it was “dehumanising to keep them [four convicts] under such threat. None of statutory provisions say they cannot be executed separately. Only the trial needs to be held simultaneously”. A 14-day interval followed the dismissal of each individual mercy petition. The simultaneous execution of the four would happen only after the 14-day interregna for all of them were over.

“So, ideally, if there are four convicts and 14 days each, the total number of days required is 56. But in this case, it has dragged on for almost a year now… At least, Mukesh and Vinay should be allowed to be executed immediately”, Mr. Mehta submitted.

At this, Justice Banumathi said the court intended to lay down the law on whether convicts in one case can be executed separately.

“In this case, there are only four…” Justice Banumathi began to say, before Mr. Mehta completed her flow of thought by adding “yes… but what if there were 20 convicts in a case?”.

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