New Delhi: A Delhi court is set to hear a plea Tuesday seeking the issuance of ‘black warrant’ against the four convicts in the 16 December gangrape-murder case, a month after the top court dismissed the review petition of the last convict.
Black warrant or death warrant proceedings take place after the person on death row has exhausted all legal remedies available to a convict, according to the law.
The 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder case had led to important amendments in India’s criminal laws dealing with rape and women security.
ThePrint details what a black warrant is, and how the four convicts in the prominent case could end up at the gallows.
What the law says on black warrant
According to the law, black warrant proceedings ought to take place only after a prisoner has “exhausted all legal remedies”.
As it stands after the Supreme Court ruling in Shabnam v. Union of India (May 2015), a black warrant proceeding cannot take place without the accused and his lawyer being present.
The 2015 case states that a convict be given prior notice of the death warrant proceedings. The warrant specifies the exact date and time of execution and not a range of dates, and a reasonable period of time be fixed between the date of the order on the warrant and the date set for execution to enable the convict to meet his/her family and pursue legal remedies.
Under the law, a copy of the execution warrant must be made available to the convict, and he/she be given legal aid at these proceedings.
In terrorist Yakub Memon’s case, the death warrant that was issued on 30 April 2015, scheduling his execution for 30 July 2015, was argued to be invalid as the option of curative plea was yet to be exhausted. He later filed a curative petition before the Supreme Court on 22 May 2015, which was rejected on 21 July 2015, after which he was hanged.
A curative petition is yet to be filed by the convicts in the Nirbhaya case too.
What does a black warrant say?
A black warrant is addressed to the officer in-charge of the jail where a convict, who has been sentenced to death, is jailed. The warrant identifies the convict, the case in which he/she was convicted, the day he/she was awarded the death penalty and the high court that confirmed the capital punishment.
It expressly states the final instruction: “This is to authorise and require you [the jail officer] to carry the said sentence into execution by causing the said [name of convict] to be hanged by the neck until he be dead…”
The black warrant then provides the time and place of the execution before asking the jail officer concerned to respond with a certificate of the convict’s execution. The warrant is signed by a judge of the trial court that had awarded the death penalty and also carries a seal of the court.
On 16 December 2012, a woman travelling with her friend in the national capital was beaten, gang-raped and brutally tortured in a private bus before being left to die on the roads. The woman was initially admitted to the Safdarjung hospital in Delhi. After public pressure mounted on the government, she was taken to Singapore for treatment, where she succumbed to her injuries less than two weeks later.
There were six accused in the gangrape-murder case — Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma, Ram Singh, Akshay Kumar Singh and a juvenile. Ram Singh allegedly committed a suicide in police custody in March 2013 whereas the juvenile was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to a maximum punishment of three years in a reform facility. The case of the remaining four was heard in a fast-track court.
On 10 September 2013, all four were found guilty of rape, murder, unnatural offences and destruction of evidence by the fast track court. In March 2014, the Delhi High Court confirmed the death penalties. When the convicts appealed the ruling in the Supreme Court in May 2017, the top court rejected it saying they had committed “a barbaric crime” that had “shaken society’s conscience”. The court upheld the death sentence of all four.
Have all legal remedies been exhausted?
India’s criminal law provides for three different ways for a convict to get a death penalty reduced to life imprisonment. The first option is to file a review against the SC verdict. If it is dismissed, a curative petition is filed before the top court to reconsider. If that too doesn’t elicit a favourable decision, a mercy plea is made before the President of India, who can commute a death sentence to life imprisonment.
In the case of Nirbhaya convicts, the Supreme Court dismissed the review petitions of Vinay, Pawan and Mukesh in July 2018. Akshay filed his review only in December 2019, which also was rejected.
Vinay filed his mercy plea before President Ram Nath Kovind early last month. Both the Delhi government and the Lieutenant Governor recommended the rejection of his mercy plea to the President. The convict later withdrew his plea and said he would file a fresh one.
On 24 December, the Tihar Jail gave notice to all convicts to file their mercy pleas, citing the rejection of Akshay’s review petition. However, no other plea has been filed yet.
Since the convicts have not filed their mercy pleas until now, it’s likely that if a death warrant is issued, the convicts may hurry for a curative plea before the top court, as happened in the Yakub Memon case.
Curative pleas are heard as per the willingness of the court and are not bound by a timeline.
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