Understanding Mercy Petition: A Fundamental Right to Life

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Understanding Mercy Petition: A Fundamental Right to Life

In various countries, including the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada, and India, a mercy petition serves as a formal request for clemency made by individuals facing death or imprisonment sentences.

This practice aligns with the fundamental right to life, as recognized in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and analogous principles in other legal systems. Explore the significance and implications of mercy petitions as an avenue for individuals seeking reprieve from the highest authorities, such as the President or Governor.

Constitutional Framework for Mercy Petition in India

In the Indian constitutional framework, seeking a mercy petition from the President represents the ultimate recourse available to a convicted individual following a court sentence. Article 72 of the Constitution of India grants the authority for presenting a mercy petition to the President. Likewise, the Governors of States are vested with the power to grant pardons, as stipulated in Article 161 of the Constitution of India. Explore the constitutional provisions that define the process and authority associated with mercy petitions in the Indian legal system.

Article 72: President power

The President is endowed with the authority to bestow pardons, reprieves, respites, or remissions of punishment, as well as to suspend, remit, or commute the sentence for individuals convicted of any offense. This includes cases adjudicated by a Court Martial.

The President’s purview to exercise these powers encompasses scenarios where the punishment or sentence is linked to an offense against any law falling within the jurisdiction of matters under the executive power of the Union.

The President is vested with the prerogative to employ these discretionary measures in all instances where the imposed sentence represents the gravest form of punishment—specifically, a sentence of death.

Article 161 :governor power

According to Article 161, the Governor of a State possesses the authority to grant pardons, reprieves, respites, or remissions of punishment, and to suspend, remit, or commute the sentence for individuals convicted of offenses falling under laws within the scope of the State’s executive power.

In a significant ruling in 2021, the Supreme Court clarified that Governors of States have the prerogative to pardon prisoners, including those on death row, even prior to completing a minimum prison sentence of 14 years.

Mercy Petition Process

Submission of Petition

While no statutory written procedure outlines the handling of mercy petitions, the customary practice involves submitting a written appeal to the President after exhausting all legal avenues. This submission can be made either by the convict personally or by a relative on their behalf.

Administrative Handling

The President’s secretariat, acting on behalf of the President, receives these petitions. Subsequently, the documentation is transmitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs for thorough assessment, comments, and recommendations.

Timeline for Death Sentence Petitions

Individuals under a death sentence can make a mercy petition within seven days of the Superintendent of the jail notifying them of the Supreme Court’s dismissal of their appeal or special leave to appeal.

Consultation and Recommendations

The Ministry of Home Affairs, in Consultation and Recommendations with the relevant State Government, deliberates on the merits of the petition. Following this consultation, the Home Minister formulates recommendations, and the petition is then returned to the President for the final decision.

Important Note on Executive Discretion

Despite being the executive heads, the President and Governor cannot independently exercise discretion under Articles 72 and 161. Both are obligated to act based on the advice of the appropriate government—Central and State. The guidance provided by the appropriate government holds binding authority over the Head of the state.

The President has the authority to either approve or decline a mercy plea based on the advice of the council of ministers. Importantly, the Constitution does not establish a designated timeframe for the acceptance or rejection of mercy petitions. The President has the option to indefinitely defer a decision on the petition if deemed appropriate.

Grounds for filing Mercy Petition

The entitlement to mercy is not inherently bestowed upon the prisoner; it is not a right that can be demanded. Mercy or clemency is typically considered based on factors such as the individual’s health, both physical and mental, as well as the financial circumstances of their family, especially if they are the sole provider of financial support.

Judicial Review in Clemency (mercy petition) Cases

In the Epuru Sudhakar & Anr. v. Government of Andhra Pradesh (2006) case, the Supreme Court ruled that the President and Governor’s clemency powers under Article 72 and Article 161 are open to judicial review. The court identified specific grounds for petitioners to seek judicial review of clemency orders, including situations where the order is issued without due consideration, is malicious, is based on entirely irrelevant factors, or exhibits arbitrariness.

Significant Legal Decisions on Mercy Petitions

Maru Ram v. Union of India (1981)

The Supreme Court determined that the authority to grant pardons under Article 72 should be exercised based on the advice of the Council of Ministers.

Dhananjoy Chatterjee State of West Bengal (1994)

The Supreme Court clarified that the powers under Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution are vested in the Central and State Governments, not independently in the President or Governor.

Kehar Singh v. Union of India (1989)

In the case of Kehar Singh v. Union of India (1989), the Supreme Court extensively reviewed the extent of the President’s pardoning authority under Article 72. The Court affirmed that when exercising the pardoning power granted by Article 72, the President has the ability to thoroughly examine the evidence presented in a criminal case and reach a conclusion regarding the guilt and imposed sentence that may differ from the court’s findings.

Mercy Petition Submission: Execution Suspension

If a convict submits a mercy petition within seven days, the Jail Superintendent is responsible for suspending the death sentence execution. Importantly, the opportunity to file a mercy petition is not restricted to the initial seven days. In exceptional circumstances or intervening events, the decision to defer the death sentence lies with the respective state government.

Keywords Associated with Pardoning power

Pardon

Definition: The president possesses the authority to completely absolve or acquit an individual of an offense, allowing them to regain normal citizenship.

Commute

Definition: The power to reduce the severity of a punishment, transforming it from a more severe form to a less harsh one. Example: Changing rigorous imprisonment to simple imprisonment.

Remission

Definition: The ability to lessen the severity of a punishment without altering its fundamental nature. Example: Reducing a sentence from 20 years of rigorous imprisonment to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment.

Reprieve

Definition: Granting a temporary delay in the execution of a sentence, typically applied to death sentences, allowing the guilty person time to establish their innocence.

Respite

Definition: Lowering the degree of punishment based on specific grounds such as pregnancy or old age, considering factors that warrant a reduction in the severity of the penalty.

Distinguishing Between Presidential and Governor’s Pardoning Powers

While both the President and Governor possess pardoning powers within the scope of their executive authority, the breadth of the President’s pardoning power, as outlined in Article 72, surpasses that of the Governor’s under Article 161. This disparity is evident in two key aspects:

The President’s authority to grant pardon encompasses cases where the sentence or punishment has been imposed by a Court Martial. Conversely, the Governor’s power, as defined in Article 161, lacks this provision.

The President can exercise the power to pardon in all instances, including those involving the death sentence. In contrast, the Governor’s pardoning authority does not extend to cases involving a death sentence.

Frequently asked questions

What is a mercy petition?

A mercy petition is a formal request for clemency made by individuals facing death or imprisonment sentences. It is significant as it aligns with the fundamental right to life, recognized in legal systems such as India’s Article 21 of the Constitution.

Which constitutional provisions in India define the process and authority associated with mercy petitions?

In India, the process and authority for mercy petitions are defined in Article 72 (President’s power) and Article 161 (Governor’s power) of the Constitution.

What powers does the President hold under Article 72 concerning mercy petitions?

Under Article 72, the President has the authority to bestow pardons, reprieves, respites, or remissions of punishment, and to suspend, remit, or commute the sentence, including death sentences.

Can Governors of States in India pardon prisoners, including those on death row?

Yes, according to Article 161, Governors of States in India have the prerogative to pardon prisoners, including those on death row, even prior to completing a minimum prison sentence of 14 years.

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