A bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam pronounced the judgment at 10.30am on Friday. The apex court wanted the five-judge constitution bench to decide that after commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment whether the government can further grant them remission by releasing them.
The Supreme Court said that the constitution bench will also address which government has the power to exercise remission for condemned prisoners under the code of criminal procedure; whether it is the state government or the central government, or both.
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at Sriperumpudur near Chennai in Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991. A special court for Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (POTA) found all the 26 persons guilty of the offence and awarded them death sentence in January 1998.
On a referred appeal before the Supreme Court, the death penalties of only four — Nalini, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan — were confirmed. Later, on the recommendation of the Tamil Nadu cabinet, the state’s governor commuted the death penalty of Nalini into life imprisonment.
Meanwhile, the mercy pleas of the three condemned persons pending before the President for more than 11 years were rejected, and their hanging was scheduled to be held in September 2011. It was, however, stayed by the Madras high court.
On February 18 this year, the apex court commuted their death sentence into life imprisonment, saying inordinate and unexplained delay in disposing of their mercy pleas by the President would be a valid ground for commuting their sentence.
On February 19, Tamil Nadu chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, announced their immediate release from prison prematurely by invoking provisions of the code of criminal procedure. Assailing the decision, the Centre rushed to the Supreme Court, which stayed their release on February 20.
Last week, Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam, on a visit to Coimbatore, had told a group of reporters there that verdict on the validity of their premature release will be given before his retirement, which is on April 26.
Taking exception to the announcement and apprehending a motive at the timing of such a disclosure, former chief minister M Karuananidhi had said the CJI ought not to have discussed such a thing in public, that too while the elections in the state were round the corner.