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Indian Top Court Rejects Death-Row Delay as Grounds for Clemency

India’s top court said years spent on death row can’t be considered grounds for clemency as it rejected a mercy plea from a convicted Sikh militant, a verdict that may be applied to others aiming to prevent their execution.

Judges gave the ruling as they threw out a petition from Devinder Singh Bhullar, found guilty of murdering nine people in a 1993 bombing of an office of the ruling Congress party. Bhullar, a member of a group that had fought for an independent Sikh state until the insurgency was crushed in the mid-1990s, argued his death sentence should be commuted to life in prison due to the torment he’d suffered awaiting execution.

Supreme Court justices G.S. Singhvi and S.J. Mukhopadhaya said in their order today that “the petitioner failed to make out a case for commutation of sentence.”

The verdict has implications for at least nine people on death row who have sought clemency from India’s president. India was among four countries in the last year that resumed using the death penalty, bucking a global trend to halt capital punishment, Amnesty International said in a report this month.

“This case has interpreted the law and all pleas will ultimately be dismissed on the reasoning given in today’s judgment,” Supreme Court advocate D.B. Goswami said in an interview. All pending mercy petitions may be “decided soon.”

Since Pranab Mukherjee was appointed president in July he has rejected mercy petitions of at least seven people, leaving them at risk of execution, Amnesty International said. Two people have been hanged -- Mumbai attack gunman Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, and Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri found guilty of participating in a strike on India’s parliament in 2001. Kasab’s was the country’s first execution since 2004.

‘Quicker the Better’

Indian Chief Justice Altamas Kabir said this week that the government should speed up the punishments for people on death row. Kabir said “the quicker things are done, the better it is for everybody,” in comments reported by the Times of India newspaper.

The car bomb triggered by Bhullar, a member of the Khalistan Liberation Front, was an attempt to kill the leader of the Youth Congress in Punjab, and left the politician’s two bodyguards among the dead. Friends of Bhullar told reporters today that he was mentally ill.

The violence in Punjab simmered for years and erupted in 1984, when India’s army assaulted the Golden Temple in Amritsar and killed the leader of the insurgency who had taken refuge in Sikhism’s holiest shrine. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot and killed later that year by her Sikh bodyguards, who were seeking vengeance.

The assassination of Gandhi led to riots in the capital New Delhi that left 3,000 people dead. A commission headed by Justice G.T. Nanavati named some Congress leaders for instigating crowds to attack Sikhs.

About 20,000 people were killed in the fight for a Sikh homeland, according to academics at Amherst College and Georgia Institute of Technology.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew MacAskill in New Delhi at amacaskill@bloomberg.net; Pratap Patnaik in New Delhi at ppatnaik2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

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