India court commutes death penalty for 1993 car bomber

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's Supreme Court Monday spared a Sikh militant convicted of a deadly car bombing two decades ago from execution, citing his mental illness and lengthy delays in deciding on his plea for mercy.

The court commuted Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar's death sentence to life in jail in the latest such decision since a landmark ruling placed new restrictions on executing prisoners in the world's biggest democracy.

Bhullar, who developed mental illness in prison, has been languishing on death row since he was convicted of the 1993 car bombing in New Delhi that killed nine people and injured more than 20.

"Mental illness, schizophrenia and insanity are grounds for commuting the death penalty in Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar's case," Chief Justice P. Sathasivam told the court.

"His medical report shows he is suffering from acute mental illness and there has been unexplained and unreasonable delays in deciding his mercy plea by eight years," said judge Sathasivam, head of a four-judge bench.

Bhullar's wife had appealed to the court for clemency, after losing several legal appeals and after the country's president rejected his plea for mercy in 2011 following an eight-year delay.

The ruling comes after the top court in January commuted the death sentences of 15 convicts, announcing that "inordinate and inexplicable" delays in carrying out executions were grounds for reducing their original punishments.

With more than 400 people on death row in India, the January ruling is expected to have further consequences for a huge backlog of cases.

The court in February spared three killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi from the hangman's noose, also citing delays in the case 23 years after his assassination by a suicide bomber.

India has carried out only three executions in the last decade following an eight-year unofficial moratorium from 2004 to 2012.

Indian public opinion remains in favour of capital punishment, with celebrations held in November 2012 when a gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks was put to death in the first execution in eight years.

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