Lessons from a provisional stay on execution

SC ruling on staying execution of Veerappan aides is not a change of heart, or decision against hanging by the state. It is just logic of law: let’s hear all sides, and pleas, before hanging a convict

shantanu

Shantanu Datta | February 18, 2013



The supreme court might have stayed the execution of the four aides of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, but the apex court’s Monday-morning order may just have resuscitated the debate over capital punishment, which gained new life after the execution of parliament attack convict Afzal Guru on February 9.

While it is a healthy debate, the politics around it is not exactly in the pink of health.
Like in the case of the two recent hangings, the debate is likely to be loaded in favour of inferring the “meaning” — the possible portent and likely content — of the judgment. While the pro-life lobby (ironical, for it seeks relief for people convicted by the country’s highest court of putting other people to death) is likely to see it as a move to halt capital punishment, the pro-death lobby (ironical, for it has no nose for reason beyond the noose) might blame the authorities for leaking the information about the foursome’s death sentence, and thereby giving the convicts’ defence lawyers to put in an application and halting the execution in its tracks.

On their part, the supreme court bench of chief justice Altamas Kabir and justices AR Dave and Vikramjit Sen said, "In the meantime, the execution of death sentence of four convicts shall remain stayed. Let the writ petition be heard day after tomorrow (Wednesday, February 20).”
According to reports (for example, this one), defence counsel sought cancellation of the death penalty since there has been an inordinate delay in the president deciding on their mercy plea. The plea sought the reduction of the sentence to life imprisonment.

A TADA court in Mysore had awarded life term to Veerappan's elder brother Gnanaprakash, Simon, Meesekar Madaiah and Bilavendran in connection with a landmine blast at Palar, Karnataka, in 1993 that killed 22 police personnel. But the supreme court enhanced it to death sentence in 2004 — the year Veerappan was killed in an encounter with the Tamil Nadu police.

So it is unlikely that the apex court is having a rethink on capital punishment, as many would like to ‘read’ this judgment to be saying. In fact, even on Saturday (February 16), three days after the president rejected their mercy petition, the apex court had refused to give an urgent hearing on the four convicts' plea seeking a stay of execution of their death penalty, as PTI reports. The court reasoned that there was no proof that the hanging was to take place on Sunday, February 17, as rumours put it.

Appearing for the petitioners, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves had said they had approached the apex court after getting “information” that the execution of death penalty was scheduled for February 17. He had said he mentioned the matter at chief justice Altamas Kabir’s residence and Kabir told him that it will be taken up for hearing in due course.

The supreme court’s decision to stay the execution till Wednesday is welcome, in that it answers both pro-life and pro-death lobbies. While the former was intimated that there is little need to rethink on earlier orders, till it needs to be rethought, the latter should get the message that there is little need to hurry, as was the case with Afzal Guru and do away with the legal, logical and ethical duties of a state.

If the imbecile logic behind the secrecy in Guru’s hanging was in anticipation of the tricky law and order situation in Jammu and Kashmir, that secrecy has achieved little, as the friction in the state over the last week tells us.

The state cannot be humanitarian, that much abused word, toward death row convicts. It’s a contradiction in terms, for you cannot, in a reasonable world, be humanitarian toward an individual whom you have decided and would put to death. That contention is a farce. At the same time, there is little need for the state to act like a colonial power afraid of the reaction of its own people, unsure of its legal, supreme court-validated, actions in the face of uncertainty over law and order breakdown.

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