The 13 life convicts responsible for the massacre of six Dalit men in Tamil Nadu in 1997 have been released on the grounds of ‘good conduct’ in prison. The Madras High Court has voiced its displeasure over the release of the convicts.

What was the case?

The murder of Murugesan, who was elected president of the Melavalavu panchayat in Madurai district, along with five others, by members of a dominant caste, who resented the local body’s leadership being reserved for Scheduled Castes, had created a sensation then. That was an era in which there was considerable communal tension between Dalits and intermediate castes. In the Melavalavu case, the Sessions Court and the High Court had sentenced 17 men to life terms. The Supreme Court confirmed the convictions in 2009.

Release of convicts

Three convicts in the Melavalavu case were released in 2008 by the DMK regime. Now, the AIADMK government has courted controversy by freeing the remaining 13 (one is no more). Last year, it convinced the Governor to agree to the release of three men found guilty of burning alive three students when they set fire to a bus in Dharmapuri during a protest in 2000. The Supreme Court had initially upheld the death penalty for the three, but, on a review petition, commuted it to life, citing their lack of intention to kill members of the public and that they had been gripped by “mob frenzy”.

Legal position on releasing convicts

The Supreme Court has repeatedly clarified that ‘life sentence’ means imprisonment till the end of one’s natural life. However, the law also provides for remission of sentences, including life terms. Under Section 433A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, a convict sentenced to life for an offence that also attracts the death penalty, or has had his death sentence reduced to life, can be considered for release only after completing 14 years in jail.

Need for releasing prisoners

While decongesting prisons by freeing inmates, especially for good conduct, and after they have served specified years, is permissible in law, there will be a question mark over mass release without regard to the nature of the crimes committed.

What should be done?

Guidelines for remission do exclude those in prison for specified crimes such as terrorism, rape and economic offences. But when those guilty of a caste atrocity such as the Melavalavu massacre are released, it is certain to send out an undesirable message. Ideally, mass release of prisoners should be avoided, and the desirability of freeing each one of them should be separately considered. The Advisory Board that recommends such release should have the benefit of a social impact report as well as the opinion of the trial court.

Source: The Hindu

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