Mumbai: The Bombay High Court on Tuesday commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence awarded to sisters Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit, who were convicted by a Kolhapur court for kidnapping 14 children and killing five of them between 1990 and 1996.
A bench of Justices Nitin Jamdar and S V Kotwal commuted the death sentence awarded to the two women after holding that the Maharashtra government and the Centre had caused inordinate delays in executing their death sentence and had breached their fundamental rights. The bench noted that the government authorities, particularly the state government, had acted casually, delayed protocol despite being aware of the seriousness of the case, and did not execute the death sentence awarded to the women despite their mercy petitions being rejected by the President over seven years ago.
The Maharashtra authorities had delayed processing papers related to the mercy petitions filed by the convict women, and a bunch of mercy petitions filed by others on their behalf, it said. The state prison authorities had failed to follow the protocol of informing the convicts about the status of their pleas, the state government officials had delayed sending relevant details to the Union ministry of home affairs, and in seeking a hearing in HC, the bench noted. "
Though the procedure for deciding mercy petitions mandates speed and expediency, the state machinery showed indifference and laxity at each stage," the court said. The High Court noted in its judgement that the women's conviction and death sentence for having kidnapped 14 children and killing five of them, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006. Their mercy petition was rejected by the President of India in 2014.
The day that their death sentence was to be executed in August 2014, the sisters filed the present plea in the High Court, seeking that their death sentence be commuted due to inordinate delay in its execution and that they be released from custody immediately.
The High Court noted that the state made a statement on not executing the death sentence till the plea was heard finally, but did nothing to seek circulation or schedule the next hearing, and the plea was heard finally by the court in September-October 2021. "The position of law that an unexplained delay in disposal of mercy petitions may result in commuting the death sentence was already holding the field when mercy petitions by the petitioners were made," the bench said. "Despite this legal position, only due to the causal approach of the officers of the respondent state (Maharashtra), the mercy petitions were not decided for 7 years, 10 months and 15 days," it said.
The bench of Justices Jamdar and Kotwal said that the state machinery showed indifference. “That it took over seven years for movement of files is unacceptable. Dereliction of duty of the state is the reason for commuting the death sentence," it said. The sessions court in Kolhapur had convicted the accused and sentenced them to death in 2001. The death sentence was confirmed by the High Court in 2004 and thereafter by the Supreme Court in 2006. The convicts approached the governor with a mercy petition in 2008, which was rejected in 2012-13. After that, they approached the President with a mercy petition, and the same was rejected in 2014.
The sisters argued before the High Court that they had both suffered over 25 years in custody and had therefore invoked their fundamental right under Article 21 through the present petition. The women urged the court to commute their death sentence to a life term and to also order for their release forthwith considering the 25 years they already spent behind by bars as the life sentence already undergone. Advocate Sandesh Patil, appearing for the Centre, argued that the mercy petition had been sent across to the President as soon as it was received from the state government and that there had been no delay.
The President had decided on the application within 10 months, he said. The bench allowed the women's petition partly by commuting their death sentence to life. It, however, refused to allow them to be released from custody, stating that the two women will have to serve their life sentence till the end of their natural life, considering that the crime committed by them was "heinous". "The argument of the state (Maharashtra government) that they (death sentence) should be executed today overlooks that it is the dereliction of its officers that is the cause for commuting the sentence of death sentence to life imprisonment," it said.
The High Court further said that while the state was supposed to represent the interest of the society in a criminal justice system, in the present case, the state machinery had not only violated the constitutional rights of the two convicts, but it had also "failed the innocent victims of a heinous crime". Meanwhile, when contacted, advocate Manik Mulik, who was a defence counsel in the case when it was tried in the Kolhapur sessions court, welcomed the HC decision. He said an appropriate decision has been taken by the HC as inordinate delay took place in execution of the death sentence awarded to the sisters. Suhas Nadgauda, additional superintendent of police, Anti-Corruption Bureau, who was part of the state CID team that probed the case, said the prosecution had built a watertight case.
A strong case was put up by the prosecution which led to the conviction of the two sisters and over 150 witnesses were examined during the trial, he said. "The entire case unfolded during an investigation of an offense against Anjana Gavit (mother of the two sisters who died in 1997 before the trial began) in the Panchvati police station in Nashik in 1996. The kidnapping and murder of children were revealed during that probe," the police officer recalled. He said as the scope of the crime was spread across Nashik, Pune, Kolhapur and Thane, the case was transferred to the state CID, which then formed a special team to prove the kidnapping and murders.
"I was a part of the team at Kolhapur. Later, all the cases from these cities were clubbed together and a common charge-sheet was filed in the sessions court in Kolhapur," said Nadgauda. He said noted lawyer Ujjwal Nikam was the special public prosecutor in the case. "Kiran Shinde, Renuka's husband, who was also arrested in the case. He had given an application before the trial court expressing his wish to provide information about the crime. "The court granted his application and he was made an approver. He gave statements in the court explaining the roles of the three women (the two sisters and their mother) in the crime," the police officer said.