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Forty-five-year old Mahendranath Das of Chenga in Barpeta district of lower Assam is a double murder convict. He has spent the last 15 years of his life waiting to be taken to the gallows. Das' case is now among several that now pose the crux of a dilemma for India's apex court: how do we now look to deal with cases of undue delay in executing convicted prisoners on death row?
Das is one prisoner who has decided to take it up. He went on fast in protest against the delay in execution in 2010 after he found out that his mercy petition - which he had filed in 1999, addressed to President KR Narayanan - was still lying in Rashtrapati Bhavan. In May 2011, President Pratibha Patil finally rejected this mercy petition, 12 years after it first reached the president's inbox.
In September 2011 Das' mother, Kusumbala Das, moved Gauhati High Court for commuting her son's death sentence to life imprisonment. But after the court observed that she had no locus standi to file such a petition on behalf of her son, Das filed another writ petition with the same prayer. The high court, in September, again rejected the petition and summarily cleared the decks for Das' execution. But it then turned out there was no hangman to carry out the order.
Seeing the state government's plight, a local youth offered his services but was rejected. And all this while, Das continued to live in confinement and kept staring at his imminent hanging, a circumstance most human rights activist condemn.
In February this, Das finally moved the Supreme Court seeking justice against the delay. Advocate ML Lahoty said, "It came up before the court that there are 15 to 16 similar cases of undue delay in execution. This is a new subject in the Supreme Court. "
Das' main contention in his special leave petition (criminal), which he filed on February 7 in the apex court, is that he has been living in solitary confinement in unhygienic conditions in a cell in Jorhat central jail. Yet, with the Supreme Court's verdict pending, Das' execution continues to get delayed.
Das committed the first murder in 1990 and while he was out on bail he killed another person in 1996. He was 33 then. In 1997, a trial court sentenced him to death for the two counts of murder. Das' appeal was rejected by the high court in 1998 and by the Supreme Court in 1999.
The trial court described the case of the prosecution against the accused in the following words, "It was an unusual morning hour on the street of the metropolis Guwahati ...The day was April 24, 1996, and the time was around 7 AM. Hara Kanta Das, a truck owner and some others i. e. , driver, truck broker etc. , were standing on the roadside sipping their tea and having their usual conversation. Suddenly, accused Mahendra Das arrived at the scene with sword like weapon and butchered Hara Kanta Das on the neck. The head was severed from the trunk. The body fell down whereupon accused dealt more blows amputating the right hand also. Thereafter, the accused picked up the severed head of Hara Kanta in one hand and with a blood dripping weapon on the other hand, exited majestically towards Fancy Bazar Police Out Post. "
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