New Delhi: The hours leading up to the scheduled execution of the 16 December 2012 gang rapists-murderers were packed with drama as the lawyers made a last-ditch attempt to get their punishment commuted to a life sentence.
Convict Pawan Gupta filed a curative petition against an earlier Supreme Court verdict rejecting his plea that he was a juvenile when the crime was committed. Meanwhile, lawyer A.P. Singh moved a sessions court seeking a stay on the hanging citing pending cases that involved the men, including Akshay Thakur, whose wife has sought a divorce.
Both pleas were rejected, but Singh told reporters that the convicts were set to file at least two more pleas Thursday night. Among other suggestions, Singh said they could be sent to the India-Pakistan border for work.
The four convicts were hanged at 5.30 am Friday, but not before the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court past midnight rejected two last-minute petitions seeking a stay on the hangings.
The drama inside the courtrooms was matched by that outside.
Punita Devi, who is seeking a divorce from Akshay Thakur because she doesn’t want to be a widow, sat outside the Patiala House Courts in Delhi, beating herself with a shoe. And a brawl ensued outside the same court between the family members of the convicts and those calling for their execution.
Petition after petition
The four men — Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma, Mukesh Singh and Akshay Thakur — are accused of brutally raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman inside a moving bus in December 2012.
There were two more accused — prime suspect Ram Singh was found dead inside his cell in 2013, while the sixth was a juvenile at the time of the crime and has since been released.
The Indian legal system allows death row inmates three portals of relief — once the Supreme Court has upheld the death penalty, a convict can file a review plea and a curative plea before the top court. Once these have been rejected, the convict can move the President with a mercy plea.
While the review pleas of Mukesh, Pawan and Vinay were dismissed in July 2018, that of Akshay was rejected last December.
The first death warrant against the convicts was issued on 7 January by a Delhi court.
In early February, the Delhi High Court gave the convicts a seven-day deadline to exhaust their legal options. However, Pawan had then neither filed a curative plea nor a mercy petition before the President.
In the curative petition filed Thursday, Pawan’s primary contention was that he was a juvenile during the commission of the crime.
A six-judge bench of the top court, led by Justice N.V. Ramana, considered the plea in chambers and dismissed it, noting that it was “without merit”.
Soon afterwards, lawyer A.P. Singh approached the court of additional sessions judge Dharmendra Rana, saying that the execution should be stayed as there were other pending cases involving the convicts.
Singh cited Punita Devi’s divorce plea in a Bihar court and the second mercy and curative petitions filed by Akshay (because, they claim, the first ones lacked proper documentation), both of which he said were pending (the president rejected the mercy plea later the same day).
The divorce hearing was slated for Thursday and the order is awaited.
However, the lower court refused to stay its decision.
Another set of hearings took place in the top court before a bench led by Justice R. Banumathi and also comprising Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice A.S. Bopanna.
First, Manohar Lal Sharma, who recently came out to represent Mukesh Singh, sought an urgent hearing on his petition where he questioned the entire trial against Singh. He also claimed Singh was the sole witness to his brother Ram’s alleged torture and murder in jail, saying his execution would sabotage this case.
However, the court refused to entertain the plea, with Justice Banumathi noting that all remedies were over for Mukesh. “Review, curative, mercy — all rights have been exercised, how can you now come and say that some documents were not placed on record?” the court said while junking the plea.
Even as the hearings took place, a scuffle erupted outside the Patiala House Courts between the families of the accused and the ones who support death penalty. The brawl only ended after police intervened.
Meanwhile, Punita Devi continued sitting on a footpath outside the court, hitting herself with a shoe and asking for the courts to “kill me”.
The next case to come up before Justice Banumathi’s bench was a petition filed by Akshay Thakur challenging the rejection of his second mercy plea by the President Thursday.
Representing Thakur, lawyer A.P. Singh sought to explain why he filed a second mercy plea and claimed all documents were not perused by the President.
Singh also suggested that, instead of being executed, the convicts could be sent to the India-Pakistan border for work or be kept in jail. However, the three-judge bench dismissed the case, noting that the “scope of judicial review is limited” when a decision by the President is being considered.
Although their execution appeared imminent, there still remained a last option — approaching higher courts to challenge the decision of the lower court that refused to stay the execution in spite of the pending cases.
Singh said two separate petitions were being filed. “The decision of a lower court not staying the death warrant will be challenged in the Delhi High Court,” he said.
The Delhi High Court heard the convicts’ challenge to the lower court order late night, with Justice Manmohan Singh heading the bench.
In its midnight ruling, the HC dismissed the petition refusing to stay execution of the death warrant. Justice Singh said the petition was devoid of merits.
At the Supreme Court, the second petition filed by convict Pawan challenging the rejection of his mercy plea by the President was taken up past midnight.
The top court rejected the plea.
In its ruling that came at 3.30 am, the same Justice Banumathi-led bench said the petitioner was not right in contending that the plea of juvenility has not been finally considered by the courts. “It was duly considered and rejected by the courts.”
The court said any alleged torture in prison could not be ground for judicial review of an executive decision under Article 72.
This report has been updated to incorporate the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court proceedings taking place past midnight.