Supreme Court admits it erred, upholds commutation of death penalty
Supreme Court: a frank admission
New Delhi: In a rare instance, the Supreme Court has admitted that its earlier judgments, in one and the same case, upholding the death sentence awarded by the trial court and confirmed by the High Court were a mistake and violation of human rights of the accused. The court in a second review upheld the Assam Governor's order commuting the punishment to life sentence.
A Bench of Justices Aftab Alam and A.K. Ganguly in a recent order said: “Instances of this court's judgment violating the human rights of the citizens may be extremely rare but it cannot be said that such a situation can never happen. On a review of the reasoning in the petition, we find that the finding in the judgment is vitiated by errors apparent on the face of the record.”
Writing the judgment, Justice Ganguly said: “Human rights are the basic, inherent, immutable and inalienable rights to which a person is entitled simply by virtue of his being born a human. They are such rights which are to be made available as a matter of right. The Constitution and legislation of a civilised country recognise them since they are so quintessentially part of every human being. That is why every democratic country committed to Rule of Law put into force mechanisms for their enforcement and protection.”
In the instant case, the Assam trial court held Ram Deo Chauhan alias Raj Nath Chauha guilty of murdering four members of a family in March 1992 and slapped the death penalty on him. This was confirmed by the Gauhati High Court and later by the Supreme Court in July 2000.
In a review petition, the convict took the stand that he was a minor aged 16 at the time of the offence and the hence the death penalty could not have been awarded by the courts below.
A three-judge Bench by a majority of 2:1 rejected the review petition and again confirmed the death sentence. But Justice K.T. Thomas, in his minority judgment, felt that since there was a doubt whether Ram Deo was a minor or not when the offence was committed, it would be in the interest of justice to commute death to life imprisonment.
Later, acting on a an article written by Ved Kumari, Professor of the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, the National Human Rights Commission headed by the former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma felt that Justice Thomas' reasoning was the correct approach and recommended that the death sentence be commuted and the Governor accordingly did so.
However, on a writ petition, the Governor's order was set aside by the Supreme Court in 2009 holding that the NHRC had no jurisdiction to intervene in the matter.
Governor's order restored
Allowing the review petition against this order, the Bench said: “On a very careful consideration of this issue, this court thinks that in view of various questions of far-reaching importance having been raised in this second review, it may be a travesty of justice if this petition is dismissed. If a person has been guaranteed certain rights either under the Constitution or under an international covenant or under a law, and he is denied access to such a right, then it amounts to a clear violation of his human right and NHRC has the jurisdiction to intervene for protecting it. We are of the opinion that in doing so, NHRC acted within its jurisdiction.”
The Bench restored the Governor's order of commutation of the death sentence.