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India's Supreme Court Monday delayed the execution of four death-row convicts until it hears an appeal later in the week as rights groups voiced growing concern over recent hangings in the country.
The Supreme Court said it would hear a plea on Wednesday from the four accomplices of slain "bandit king" Veerappan, who were sentenced to death in 2004 for their role in a landmine blast in southern India that killed 22 policemen.
"In the meantime the execution of the death sentence of the four convicts shall remain stayed," the Supreme Court said.
Colin Gonsalves, the men's lawyer, said he was seeking to have their sentence commuted to life imprisonment "for the mental distress they have suffered during the inordinate eight-year delay in deciding on their mercy plea".
The court's ruling could be a precedent-setting decision for many other inmates who have been lingering on death row for years, lawyers said.
President Pranab Mukherjee last week rejected the mercy plea of the four men being held in Belgaum jail in Karnataka state.
Executions in India are only carried out in "rarest of rare" cases. But Mukherjee, recently elected president, has rejected a number of mercy pleas in the last few months, ending an informal eight-year moratorium on executions.
"This government has executed more people since November 2012 than in the previous 10 years. To continue such a regressive trend would be truly shameful," said G. Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive of Amnesty International India.
Earlier this month Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted of involvement in a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, was executed in New Delhi, triggering angry protests in the disputed region of Indian Kashmir.
The lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Pakistani-born Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, was hanged last November in India's first execution since 2004.
Veerappan, accused of over 100 killings, was killed in a police ambush in 2004 after evading capture for decades. He was believed to have amassed a vast fortune from elephant poaching, sandalwood smuggling and kidnappings.