India’s top court yesterday stopped the government of Tamil Nadu State from releasing three of the seven prisoners serving life sentences for the 1991 assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, a lawyer said.
The state ruled on Wednesday that the seven should be released because they have served more than 20 years in prison. Critics immediately slammed the decision, calling it a transparent attempt to win over Tamil voters in this year’s national elections.
The federal government petitioned the Supreme Court yesterday to stop the state from freeing the prisoners, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying the move was “not legally tenable.”
The court on Tuesday had commuted the death sentences for three of the convicts, after their lawyers argued that executing them now, after they had already served long prison terms, would amount to an unconstitutional double punishment.
Rakesh Dwivedi, a lawyer for Tamil Nadu’s government, said the court’s order yesterday applied only to the three prisoners whose sentences had been commuted, and that the state was free to release the other four.
The court asked the federal government to file a separate petition regarding the fate of the four prisoners not covered by yesterday’s decision, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu in May 1991 as he campaigned for a return to the post of prime minister. Seventeen other people, including the bomber, also were killed in the attack.
The assassination was orchestrated by Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels to avenge Gandhi’s decision to send Indian troops to intervene in the country’s civil war in the 1980s.
Mohan Parasaran, the solicitor-general who argued the federal government’s petition against the release of the convicts, said he told the Supreme Court that the state government had no authority to free the prisoners.
“The appropriate government to consider the grant of remission to prisoners is the federal government,” he told reporters.
The court scheduled further arguments in the case to be heard on March 6, and the state is unlikely to release any of the seven prisoners — six men and one woman — before then.
Tamil Nadu’s government ruled Wednesday that the seven should be released because they have served more than 20 years in prison.