New Delhi: In a significant move, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the Centre to furnish details of 18 mercy pleas, including that of the Parliament attack death convict Afzal Guru, pending for disposal before the President.

A bench of justices G S Singhvi and S J Mukhopadhaya also asked eminent jurist Ram Jethmalani to file written submissions on "whether the President should objectively apply mind while deciding mercy petitions".

The Apex Court felt that the role of the state was perhaps advisory and the final verdict is of the President. The court passed directions while dealing with the appeal filed by death convict Devender Pal Singh Bhullar, challenging the undue delay in disposal of his mercy petition by the President.

The bench asked Additional Solicitor General Haren Raval to produce the files relating to 18 death row convicts whose mercy petitions are pending for disposal for the past one to seven years.

Appearing for Bhullar, senior counsel K T S Tulsi told the court that between 1997 and 2011, the President has disposed off 32 mercy petitions, 13 of which were done after a 10-year wait. He submitted 14 other cases were disposed off after a delay ranging between four and 10 years, while the remaining cases were disposed off between one-four years.

Earlier Jethmalani told the court that there should not be even a day's delay in disposal of the mercy petition of the convict as it was violative of the persons right to liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. He submitted that section 302 IPC prescribes a maximum sentence of death but delay in execution of the death sentence or disposal of the mercy petition amounted to imposing additional punishment on the convict "if not sanctioned by law". Jethmalani argued that the delay caused mental torture to the convict who is struggling to save his life.

However, the bench responded by saying that a convict goes through the judicial process before his or her conviction for a period spread over 15 years until the sentence attains finality. The bench then wondered whether anyone had done so far research on the mental state of the cattle which are on the line at the chopping block of a butcher. By drawing the analogy, the court sought to infer that even the cattle must be struggling to save his life at the hands of the butcher.

The bench was hearing the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) terrorist Bhullar, who has pleaded that his capital punishment be commuted to the life imprisonment as there has been an "inordinate" delay in deciding his mercy plea and he is not mentally sound.

He had submitted that prolonged incarceration awaiting his execution amounted to cruelty and violated his Fundamental Right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Bhullar was awarded death penalty for triggering a bomb blast here in September 1993 on Raisina Road outside the Youth Congress office killing nine people.

He was deported from Germany in 1995, after his application for political asylum was rejected there. The Supreme Court had on March 26, 2002, dismissed Bhullar's appeal against the death sentence, awarded by the trial court and endorsed by the Delhi High Court. He had filed a review petition which was also dismissed on December 17, 2002. Bhullar had then moved a curative petition which too had been rejected by the Apex Court on March 12, 2003. Bhullar, meanwhile, had filed a mercy petition before the President on January 14, 2003.

The President, after a lapse of over eight years, dismissed his mercy plea on May 25 last year. Bhullar is currently undergoing treatment at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences at Shahdara for hypertension, psychiatric illness and suicidal tendencies.

Earlier, in an affidavit in the Supreme Court, the Centre had justified the delay of over eight years in deciding Bhullar's mercy plea and said "processing a mercy petition is purely a Constitutional process which takes time". The Centre had told the court that no time limit can be fixed for disposal of mercy pleas of convicts on death row and the court cannot prescribe a time limit for it. It had submitted that powers conferred on the President to decide a mercy plea are special powers which cannot be interfered with.