Plea junked, Bhullar to hang
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Bhullar has been on death row since his clemency petition, which was pending with the president for six years, was finally rejected in 2011.
A bench led by Justice G S Singhvi held that in cases where the magnitude of the crime and its impact on society justified imposing capital punishment, a court cannot judicially review a decision by the President or a governor only on the ground of undue delay.
It also paved the way for Bhullar's execution, discarding an argument that he could not be hanged in view of his grave mental illness.
Bhullar's Canada-based wife Navneet Kaur, who was present in the court, regretted the judgment. At first, she could not believe the court had dismissed the plea and repeatedly inquired from her lawyer and other relatives if she heard the judgment correctly.
Dejected, Kaur subsequently pointed out that Bhullar has been suffering from mental illness too and it appeared the court did not consider everything.
The verdict, which clarified that delay in disposal of a clemency plea under Article 72 will not justify a review of the President's decision in all cases, will have a direct bearing on the fate of several other convicts seeking mercy on the ground that their execution has been delayed.
There are at least 16 other such prisoners, including convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan's aides.
The bench said that a court's power of judicial review in such cases was "very limited" and that it could interfere only if the decision was taken without application of mind to the relevant factors or it is founded on extraneous or irrelevant considerations or when it is vitiated due to malafides or patent arbitrariness.
Acknowledging that India was "one of the worst victims of internal and external terrorism," the court termed it "paradoxical" that terrorists who do not show mercy to others and treat human lives with impunity would later plead for mercy, citing a delay in disposal of clemency pleas.
"Many others join the bandwagon to espouse the cause of terrorists, involved in gruesome killing and mass murder of innocent civilians and raise the bogey of human rights," it said, while asserting that crimes under TADA and similar statutes stood at a more serious footing.
The court, however, also underlined the "disturbing phenomena" that mercy petitions filed between 1999 and 2011 remained pending for a period ranging from one year to 13 years, suggesting the government and the President's secretariat have not dealt with these pleas with requisite seriousness.
"We hope and trust that in future such petitions will be disposed of without unreasonable delay," the court said but refrained from setting a time-frame for the executive.
It added that a RTI reply revealed that a large number of mercy petitions between 2005 and 2011 remained pending with the President, "giving rise to unwarranted speculations" while the home ministry also failed to take appropriate steps for reminding the President's secretariat.
"What was done in April and May 2011 could have been done in 2005 itself and that would have avoided unnecessary controversy," the court said.
Bhullar, now 48, was sentenced to death by the apex court in 2002 for triggering a bomb blast in the heart of Delhi in 1993. The blast killed nine people and maimed 25, including then Youth Congress president M S Bitta.
However, his mercy petition filed before the President in May 2005 was decided in May 2011. Bhullar and his family moved the apex court against the rejection of his mercy plea. They contended the "inordinate" delay should be treated as sufficient for commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment, more so, because of prolonged detention, Bhullar had become mentally ill.
"It is true that there was considerable delay in disposal of the petition filed by the petitioner but keeping in view the peculiar facts of the case, we are convinced that there is no valid ground to interfere with the ultimate decision taken by the President," the court said.
It noted that a substantial portion of the delay could well be attributed to the unending spate of the representations by various political and non-political functionaries, organizations and several individuals from abroad on behalf of Bhullar.
The bench also turned down a request to consider Bhullar's plea on the ground of his mental health, noting the documents adduced could not be relied upon for holding that his mental health had deteriorated to such an extent that the sentence awarded to him cannot be executed.