New Delhi: An unprecedented pre-dawn 90-minute hearing in the Supreme Court which began in Court Room 4 at 3.20 am sealed the fate of Yakub Memon, convicted in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, after his final plea to escape the gallows was dismissed. He was hanged to death shortly before 7 am in the Nagpur central jail.
In dramatic developments post mid-night, a battery of lawyers mounted a last-minute effort to save 53-year-old Memon from the noose when they rushed to the residence of the Chief Justice of India H L Dattu with a petition for an urgent hearing.
The move by Memon's counsels came hours after the rejection of his mercy pleas, first by Maharashtra Governor and then by the President.
They sought stay of the hanging on the ground that 14 days' time is needed to be given to a death row convict to enable him challenge the rejection of his mercy plea.
After due consultations, the CJI constituted a 3-judge bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra, which had yesterday upheld the death warrant and refused to stay its execution.
The lawyers rushed from the CJI's residence to the Tughlak Road residence of Supreme Court judge Deepak Misra and then finally a few kilometers away to the Supreme Court.
The petition was heard by a three-judge bench in court number 4 after security checks at 3.20 am and ended at 4.50 am. The Supreme Court has never before been opened in the wee hours for a hearing.
Memon's lawyers and activists cited a Supreme Court judgement in another case to argue that he can't be hanged for at least 14 days after his mercy plea was rejected.
They also argued that the Maharashtra prison manual, which stipulates that there must be a seven-day gap between the rejection of a mercy petition and execution, has not been followed.
The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, saying ample opportunity had been given to Memon to file his petition after his mercy plea was rejected.
The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court had yesterday upheld the death warrant issued by a TADA court against Memon on April 30 for his execution today.
The bench had also held that a Supreme Court bench's rejection of his curative petition against his conviction and sentencing did not suffer from infirmities.
During today's early morning proceedings, Memon's senior counsels Anand Grover and Yug Chowdhury contended the authorities were "hell bent" on executing him without giving him the right to challenge the rejection of his mercy petition by the President, insisting right to life of a condemned prisoner lasts till his last breath.
Grover said a death row convict is entitled to 14 days reprieve after rejection of mercy plea for various purposes.
Opposing Memon's plea, Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi said his fresh petition amounted to "abusing" the system.
Rohatgi said the whole exercise was an attempt to prolong Memon's stay in jail and get the sentence commuted. "A death warrant upheld just 10 hours ago by three judges cannot be quashed," he said.
"Stay of death warrant would be a travesty of justice. The plea is dismissed," said Justice Dipak Misra, writing the judgement for the bench.
The bench was in agreement with Rohatgi, with Justice Mishra saying the convict had "ample opportunity" after his first mercy plea was rejected by the President on April 11, 2014 which was communicated to him on May 26, 2014.
He said the rejection could have then been challenged before the Supreme Court.
"As a consequence, if we have to stay the death warrant it would be a travesty of justice," the bench said, adding "we do not find any merit in the writ petition".
Reacting to the verdict, Grover said it was a "tragic mistake" and a "wrong decision".
The Supreme Court had described Memon as the "driving spirit" behind the 1993 Mumbai blasts that left 257 dead and 713 wounded.
His brother, Tiger Memon, and underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, who masterminded the blasts, are absconding. The special TADA court had awarded him death penalty on September 12, 2006.
The blasts had followed the communal riots on 1992-93 in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition.