Holding the action and procedure adopted to deprive a person of life or liberty must be fair, just and reasonable, the Supreme Court Tuesday framed guidelines for removing the disparities in implementation of existing laws for death row convicts.
“It is well-settled law that executive action and legal procedure adopted to deprive a person of his life or liberty must be fair, just and reasonable and the protection of article 21 of the constitution of India inheres in every person, even death-row prisoners, till the very last breath of their lives,” said a bench of Chief Justice P.Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh in their judgment.
Taking note of the disparities in implementing the already existing laws, the court framed the guidelines to be followed for safeguarding the interest of the death row convicts.
- ** Solitary Confinement: The court held solitary or single cell confinement prior to rejection of the mercy petition by the president unconstitutional. It said almost prison manuals of all the states provide necessary rules for confinement of death convicts, but these should not be interpreted to run counter to the above ruling and violate article 21.
- ** Legal Aid: The court asked superintendent of jails to inform the nearest Legal Aid Centre as well as the prisoner about the rejection of mercy petitions, since there is no provision in any prison manuals for providing legal aid, for preparing appeals or mercy petitions or for accessing judicial remedies after the mercy petition’s rejection.
- ** Procedure in placing mercy petition before the president – As and when any such petition is received or communicated by the state government after rejection by the governor, necessary materials such as police records, judgments of the trial court, the high court and the Supreme Court and all other connected documents should be called at once, and a time limit fixed for forwarding them to the home ministry.
- After getting all the details, it is for the home ministry to send the recommendations/their views to the president within a reasonable and rational time. After sending the necessary particulars, if there is no response from the office of the president, it is the responsibility of the ministry to send periodical reminders.
- ** Communication of rejection of mercy petition by governor: The rejection should forthwith be communicated to the convict and his family in writing or through some other mode of communication available.
- ** Communication of rejection of mercy petition by president: The rejection should forthwith be communicated to the convict and his family in writing.
- ** Death convicts are entitled as a right to receive a copy of the rejection of the mercy petition by the president and the governor.
- ** Minimum 14 days notice for execution: The court held necessary that a minimum period of 14 days be stipulated between the receipt of communication of the rejection of the mercy petition and the scheduled date of execution for the following reasons: It allows the prisoner to prepare himself mentally for execution, to make his peace with god, prepare his will and settle other earthly affairs and have a last and final meeting with his family members.
- It is the obligation of the superintendent of the jail to see that the family members of the convict receive the message of communication of rejection of mercy petition in time.
- ** Mental health evaluation: The court said it had seen that in some cases, death-row prisoners lost their mental balance on account of prolonged anxiety and suffering experienced on death row. Thus there should, therefore, be regular mental health evaluation of all death row convicts and appropriate medical care should be given to those in need.
- ** Physical and mental health reports: If the jail superintendent is of the opinion that the prisoner is not fit, he should forthwith stop the execution, and produce the prisoner before a medical board for a comprehensive evaluation and shall forward its report to the state government for further action.
- ** Furnishing documents to the convict: The court noted most of the death row prisoners are extremely poor and do not have copies of their court papers, judgments, etc, which are a must for preparation of appeals, mercy petitions and post-mercy judicial remedies available to them under article 21. Since availability of these documents is a necessary pre-requisite to the accessing of these rights, it is necessary that copies of relevant documents should be furnished to the prisoner within a week by the prison authorities.
- ** Final Meeting between prisoner and his family: It is necessary for prison authorities to facilitate and allow a final meeting between the prisoner and his family and friends prior to his execution.
- ** Post mortem reports: Holding that the hanging should be least painful and noting that there was a dearth of experienced hangmen in the country, the court said that there should be a compulsory post mortem to be conducted on death convicts after the execution.
It said by making a post mortem obligatory, the cause of the convict’s death can be found out, revealing whether he died as a result of the dislocation of the cervical vertebrate or by strangulation which results on account of too long a drop.
The court said the constitution permits the execution of death sentence only through procedure established by law and this must be just, fair and reasonable. This could be done by making post mortem obligatory, the court said.