Supreme Court acts to prevent travesty of Justice, acknowledges NHRC's wider powers to promote human rights
Ramdeo Chauhan's case is probably the most controversial and significant case in the history of juvenile justice litigation in India. Chauhan, who claimed to be a juvenile and convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1998, has got relief after 12 years of litigation. The death penalty for juvenile offenders violates India's Juvenile Justice Act and international human rights standards. In 2010, the Hon'ble Supreme Court has finally upheld the grant of clemency by the Governor of State of Assam in accordance with a recommendation by the National Human Rights Commission, acknowledging NHRC's wider role for promotion of human rights. Conflicting interpretation of testimonies and records regarding Chauhan's age made this case extremely complicated. He presented evidence indicating he was only 15 at the time of the commission of crime. Prosecutors countered this evidence with testimony that Chauhan was at least 19 years old. Whether Chauhan was adult, could never be established positively. In spite of uncertainty regarding Chauhan s age, the Supreme Court in 2001 held that Chauhan was not a juvenile and confirmed his death sentence. However, pronouncing a minority dissenting judgement, Justice Thomas raised a critical question:"Can death sentence be awarded to a person whose age is not positively established by the prosecution as above 16 on the crucial date"? Prompted by Justice Thomas'dissent and an article by Dr. Ved Kumari, a well known activist and professor at Delhi University, the National Human Rights Commission inquired into the case suo moto. Upon NHRC's recommendation, the Governor of Assam commuted Chauhan's sentence to life imprisonment. The victim's family appealed to the Supreme Court against such order of commutation and succeeded in getting it set aside. HRLN intervened at this stage and took the matter to Supreme Court once again in a Review Petition no. 1378 of 2009 in Writ Petition Civil 457 of 2005. This time, Hon'ble Supreme Court agreed to review its earlier judgement to prevent a "travesty of justice." After examining questions related to the Court's power of review, the jurisdiction of the NHRC, and Chauhan's right to seek commutation, the Court set aside the 2009 judgement as clear error. Admitting the possibility that its previous judgement violated Chauhan's human rights, the Court endorsed a broad definition of human rights violations: "If a person is entitled to a benefit under a particular law, and benefits under that law have been denied to him, it will amount to a violation of his human rights." The Court ordered the restoration of the Governor's commutation order. On the issue of claim of juvenility, Supreme Court did not give any finding but granted liberty to Ramdeo Chauhan to claim juvenility in appropriate forum. HRLN Lawyers have now moved an application claiming juvenility for Chauhan before the Juvenile Justice Board of relevant jurisdiction and the application is pending there. The inordinate delay in deciding his application by the Juvenile Board has now been challenged in Guwahati High Court by prominent Child Rights Activist Minna Kabir through a letter petition and judgement is awaited.