Indian Supreme Court Seeks Government’s Response on Release Plea by Australian Missionary Murder Convict

The petitioner said that he acknowledges and deeply regrets the transgressions perpetrated more than two decades ago.

The Supreme Court of India sought a response from the Indian state of Odisha Government regarding the premature release of Dara Singh, who is serving a life sentence for his involvement in the 1999 death of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons.

A bench of Justices Hrishikesh Roy and SVN Bhatti issued the notice in response to Singh’s plea for release.

Background of the Case

Rabindra Kumar Pal, alias Dara Singh, was arrested in February 2000 for the killing of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his sons in Manoharpur village, Keonjhar district of Indian state Odisha. The three were burned to death outside a church, an incident that drew international condemnation and highlighted religious tensions amid allegations of conversion to Christianity by foreign missionaries in India.

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Details of the Plea

Dara Singh, represented by Advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain, has filed a plea seeking his release in line with the Guidelines for Premature Release of Life Convicts. According to the plea, Singh, now 61 years old, has already served more than the 14 years stipulated in the policy dated April 19, 2022, and has been in actual imprisonment for over 24 years without remission.

“It is noteworthy that the petitioner has never been released on parole and even when his mother passed away, he could not perform her last rites as he was not allowed to be released on parole,”

the plea mentioned.

The petition highlights several precedent cases where the Court granted early release or remission to convicted individuals. For instance, AG Perarivalan, one of the assassins of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was released by the court despite initially receiving a confirmed death sentence that was later commuted to life imprisonment. Other convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, such as R.P. Ravichandran and Nalini, were also released.

Another case cited in the petition is Madan v. State of U.P. Here, the accused, along with others, was convicted of murdering six people and was awarded capital punishment, later commuted to life imprisonment.

The Court’s decision was based on several factors:

  • The Court considered both the ‘crime test’ and the ‘criminal test’ during sentencing.
  • The convict’s Prison Conduct Report showed good behaviour.
  • There was a possibility of the convict’s reformation and rehabilitation.

In this case, the convict was released after serving 18 years of imprisonment. In comparison, Dara Singh has already served over 24 years.

Odisha Government’s 2022 Guidelines

The petition also references the resolution passed by the Odisha Government in 2022, which standardises the criteria for determining if a convict should be released early.

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According to these guidelines:

Para 5 of the 2022 Guidelines states: “Save as provided in these guidelines, every convicted prisoner, whether male or female, undergoing a sentence of life imprisonment and covered by the provisions of section 423 A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Cr.P.C.), shall be eligible to be considered for premature release from the prison immediately after serving a sentence of fourteen years of actual imprisonment, i.e., without remissions.”

Explanation: Completion of fourteen years in prison alone does not automatically entitle a convict to release. The Board has the discretion to release a convict considering the circumstances of the crime and other factors, including: a. Whether the convict has lost the potential for committing crimes based on overall conduct in jail during the fourteen years of incarceration. b. The possibility of reclaiming the convict as a useful member of society. c. The socio-economic condition of the convict’s family.

Based on these factors, the petition argues that the court should independently determine whether Dara Singh should be released prematurely.

Singh’s Statement and Regret

In his petition, Singh acknowledges and deeply regrets his actions from over two decades ago. Singh also emphasised that there was no personal animosity towards the victims and that a distorted sense of patriotism and reaction to historical grievances drove his actions.

“In the fervour of youth, fuelled by impassioned reactions to the brutal history of India, the petitioner’s psyche momentarily lost restraint,”

he stated.

He elaborated, “In a zealous endeavour to safeguard and defend Mother India, regrettable offences were committed.”

Argument for Reform and Release

Singh’s plea also highlights the principle of reformative justice, which focuses on rehabilitating offenders rather than viewing them as inhuman creatures.

“The basic principle of the reformative theory emphasises the renewal of the convict and the beginning of a new life for him,”

he stated.

Singh argued that he has understood and repented the consequences of his actions and now seeks mercy to contribute positively to society.

“The Petitioner is reaching the twilight of his lifetime but remains incarcerated, without any hope of him being released prematurely, by the State Government and thus, his right under Article 21 of the Constitution is being infringed,” the plea argued.

Claims of Discrimination

Singh’s petition also claims he is being discriminated against, as similarly situated individuals have been released prematurely. “He is being discriminated as similarly situated persons who have been incarcerated for the same or lesser period have been released prematurely whereas the Petitioner’s case is not being considered due to which his right under Article 14 of the Constitution is being infringed affecting his right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution,” the petition added.

Interestingly, the District Magistrate of Auraiya recommended Dara Singh’s premature release in 2018, but he was not released. Similarly, in 2022, the Office of the Superintendent of District Jail, Keonjhar, issued a character certificate attesting to Singh’s good behaviour in jail. Despite this, and another recommendation for premature release from the Superintendent of Police, Auraiya in 2022, Singh was not released.

The petition underscores that Dara Singh has been incarcerated for over 24 years, surpassing the period required for consideration of premature release, and argues that he has shown reformative behaviour warranting his release.

Shortly after the sentencing of Dara Singh, the wife of missionary Graham Staines, Gladys issued a statement saying that she had forgiven the killers and had no bitterness towards them.

In 2004, she decided to return to Australia to stay with her daughter and father. In 2005, she was awarded the Padma Sree, a civilian award from the Government of India, in recognition of her work in Orissa, India.

Next Steps

The Supreme Court’s notice to the Odisha Government marks a crucial step in Singh’s pursuit of premature release. The government’s response will be pivotal in determining whether Singh’s plea will be granted. The case underscores the broader issues of reformative justice and the rights of convicts under the Indian Constitution, particularly the right to life and equality before the law.

As the legal process unfolds, this case will likely continue to attract attention, given its historical context and the significant implications for India’s justice system.

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