Two judges held a special sitting of the Delhi High Court late on Thursday night to hear a last-minute petition by the gang-rape convicts against their death sentence. Their verdict, delivered after arguments that lasted over 90 minutes, could lock their fate. The bench comprising Justices Manmohan and Sanjeev Narula dismissed the petition by three of the four men ordered to be executed less than 6 hours later, holding that the request was bereft of merits or a valid ground.
The four men — Mukesh Singh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur — had been first sentenced to death in 2013 for the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old less than a year earlier.
The attack that provoked large protests across India and nudged Parliament to enact tough new laws against sexual violence, including the death penalty for rape in some cases, but implementation has been poor and the attacks have shown no signs of let-up.
In the verdict delivered past midnight, the judges ruled that it was a little late in the day to contest the death sentence on the points that they had raised.
The convicts, set to be hanged at 5.30 am on Friday, had rushed to the Delhi High Court to appeal against their execution scheduled less than 10 hours later. By the time the high court delivered the ruling, the convicts had just a little over five hours left.
The bench, which had let lawyers for the convicts have their word, had dropped indications of what they thought about the arguments right through the hearing.
“Three courts have applied their mind… The President has applied his mind. You have to make some case… This is a casual approach. Present at least one legal point,” the judge said.
“You have to understand that the judgment has been passed and the case has attained finality,” the bench told lawyer AP Singh, who was representing the three death-row convicts.
The judges also faulted the death-row convicts for not filing their appeals when they should have.
“The law favours those who take timely action. Someone is playing with the system. There is a gross delay on your part. You are blaming us, the blame lies with you,” the bench said, asking the lawyer for the rape convicts to come up with a firm legal ground to back their request.
The judges had, early in the hearing, pointed that they were rushing from one court to another at the last moment. And were heard at every point through the day.
“You are going to three courts in a day. You can’t say that the courts are not accessible,” Justice Manmohan said, a reference to their requests before a Delhi judge and the Supreme Court earlier in the day.
Their petition before the high court was one of the many that the four convicts have filed over the last few weeks to avoid being sent to the gallows. The four had been convicted seven years ago for the brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in December 2012 when she was returning home from a movie in south Delhi.
The trial court had taken less than a year to return a guilty verdict and sentence them to death in 2013. But the appeals process took years to complete.
The exercise was expedited only when the government got the court to issue a death warrant. The court – which had first ordered the four, Mukesh Kumar Singh (32), Pawan (25), Vinay Sharma (26) and Akshay Kumar Singh (31), to be hanged by their neck on January 22 – had to put off their execution more than once.
On Thursday, Delhi judge Dharmender Rana ruled that the request by Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta and Vinay Sharma to suspend the death sentence was “bereft of merits”.
“No valid ground has been brought to my notice to justify the stay of execution of death warrants. The application is accordingly dismissed,” the court said on the attempt to stop the hanging that had already been deferred thrice.
“The issue has been pestering the conscience of the community for sometime. The time consumed by the process of law has even led some diffident voices to timorously question the very efficacy of ‘Rule of Law,” judge Dharmender Rana ruled.