India's Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for the execution of a Sikh militant, rejecting his appeal in a ruling that could lead to more death sentences being carried out.
Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar from northwestern Punjab, who was convicted over a New Delhi car bombing that killed nine people in 1993, had appealed for his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds that he had spent two decades on death row.
He also challenged the right of the state to execute mentally ill convicts, claiming he had developed psychological problems while languishing in prison, including schizophrenia.
A Supreme Court bench ruled that neither his lengthy wait in prison nor his apparent mental problems were reasons to set aside the death sentence.
"The petitioner has not been able to make out a case for commuting his sentence," Justice G.S. Singhvi said, reading out the judgment. The ruling was being followed by more than a dozen other prisoners whose executions have also been held up for decades, including three men convicted over the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
"After this judgment, India will have to resume execution including of 17 death row convicts who had filed petitions before the courts on the grounds of delay," said Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights.
"India must decide whether it wants the tag of the top five executioners of the world along with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq," Chakma said.
Indian courts hand down death sentences for the "rarest of rare" crimes but the country had not carried out an execution for eight years until last November when it put to death the only surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Another militant convicted for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 was executed in February after his appeal for clemency was rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee.
Mukherjee, who took office in July last year, has signalled a hard line on the death penalty by regularly dismissing mercy pleas - unlike his three predecessors.
Navneet Kaur, the 48-year-old wife of Bhullar who was present in the courtroom, said she was disappointed by the order.
"We waited for so long ... we have suffered so much. The court did not consider our point, it has not been fair with us," she told India's NDTV news channel.