NEW DELHI (TIP): The Supreme Court on April 25 put on hold the release of seven assassins of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and other life convicts such as Devender Pal Singh Bhullar by referring the issue of their right to remissions in sentence to a Constitution bench.

A Constitution Bench comprising not less than five judges would decide as to whether life imprisonment meant keeping the convicts in jail for the rest of their lives or they were entitled to remissions, a three-member bench headed by outgoing Chief Justice P Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and NV Ramana ruled.

The Constitution bench would also spell out the powers of the Governors and the President for granting remissions under Sections 432/433 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as both of them had parallel powers under Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution, respectively.

The SC delivered the judgment on a petition filed by the Centre challenging Tamil Nadu government’s hasty move to release immediately Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan following conversion of their deathsentence to life term by the apex court due to the undue delay in the rejection of their mercy petitions.

The Centre also opposed the state’s decision to release another four life convicts – Jayakumar, Robert Payas, P Racichandran and S Nalini (wife of Murugan) – in the 1991 Gandhi murder case. Earlier, the apex court had stayed the release of the seven. Today it clarified that this order would hold until disposal of the Centre’s petition by the Constitution bench.

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Devender Pal Singh Bhullar

This year, the SC has commuted the death sentence of about 20 convicts, including Bhullar and four associates of slain forest brigand Veerappan, by reducing their penalty to life term in jail in view of the delays over mercy plea rejections or the prisoners’ insanity. The Constitution bench would also decide as to who had primacy over the issue of remissions – the Centre or the states — and whether there could be two “appropriate governments” in a given case under Section 432(7) of the IPC.

It would also explain the kind of “consultation” the states would have to undertake with the Centre on the subject or they would have to take the Centre’s concurrence. The matter would go to the larger bench “as early as possible, preferably within a period of three months,” the bench said.

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