The Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted to life terms the death sentences of 15 convicts, delivering a judgement that their lawyer, Yug Chaudhry, hailed as an international landmark.

The court also ruled that there must be a gap of 14 days between the time the prisoner and his or her family is told of the rejection of a mercy plea and the time that the death sentence is executed. Moreover, convicts should be given a chance to meet their family members before they are executed.

Neither of these measures was observed in the case of Afzal Guru, who was convicted for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and secretly hanged in February.

The solitary confinement of prisoners, including death row convicts, is unconstitutional and should not be allowed, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam ruled. This practice was outlawed years ago and should immediately stop, the bench said.

Yug Chaudhry, their lawyer, described the judgement as "a wake-up call for all of us".  "We need to ask ourselves whether we want people to be executed in these barbaric ways in our names and for what," he said. "How are we made more secure? We need to ask ourselves why two-thirds of the world has abolished the death penalty while we have not, and what purpose it serves."

Among the country's most articulate campaigners against capital punishment, Chaudhry has a law degree from Cambridge and a doctorate in English from Oxford.

The 15 prisoners include four associates of Veerappan, the bandit who used to operate in forests straddling the Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala borders before his death in 2004.

The judgement could have ramifications for the approximately 420 other convicts on death row. This includes three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, who have challenged the president’s rejection of their mercy pleas two-and-a-half years ago. The Supreme Court is to hear the case on January 29.  Chaudhry spoke to Scroll soon after the judgement was delivered.

What do you think of the judgement?

It is a tribute to the independence of the Indian judiciary and to our constitutional values. This judgement is a landmark not only for India, but for death penalty jurisprudence all over the world.

What reasons has the Supreme Court provided for the commutations?

Of the 15 convicts on death row, the government's decisions on the mercy petitions of 13 had been inordinately delayed, and this was the reason the court gave for commuting their sentences. There was a delay of between six and 13 years in these cases.

Then, the 14th convict had gone mad, and the Supreme Court said that you cannot execute a person who is suffering from a mental illness.

For the 15th convict, the bench said that the government had ignored relevant considerations while adjudicating the mercy petition. For example, it had ignored the fact that during the trial the convict had shown signs of mental illness and that the superintendent of the prison had recommended commutation of the sentence.

In addition, the court overruled its own verdict in the case of Khalistani terrorist Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, in which it had earlier said that a delay in deciding a mercy plea cannot be a ground for commutation of the death sentence if someone is convicted under the anti-terror law. In Tuesday's judgement it said that this does not make a difference, in effect overturning the earlier verdict.

What are the judgement's ramifications?

The judgement makes it clear that retribution has no place in our Constitutional values. It also makes clear that the content of Article 21 [which states that "no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law"] has to take meaning from the evolving standards of decency that inform Constitutional values and the march of civilisation.

In other words, the government is duty-bound to protect the rights enshrined in Article 21 till the prisoner breathes his last breath. What happened to Afzal Guru, who was executed secretly without his family being informed, can never happen again.

Some people would still argue that there are cases in which capital punishment is valid -- that the punishment should be commensurate with the crime, that it provides a sense of closure for victims' families.

First, like for like is a barbaric notion. If we go down that road, will you respond to rape with rape or castration?

Second, closure should be possible when you get a conviction. Why do you have to execute people? Victims have rights, and that is honoured through compensation and conviction.

We need to go beyond asking for our pound of flesh.