India frees six convicts jailed for roles in Rajiv Gandhi assassination

Supreme Court said prisoners spent decades in jail and that their conduct 'satisfactory'

A memorial for former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur. India's Supreme Court has released six people jailed in connection with his 1991 assassination. AFP
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India’s Supreme Court on Friday granted early release for their “good conduct” to six life-term inmates convicted over the 1991 assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The Indian court ordered the release of Nalini Sriharan, Jaykumar, PR Ravichandran, Robert Pias, Suthendraraja, and Sriharan. They have spent more than 23 years in prison. Some had been paroled.

“The appellants are directed to be set at liberty if not required in any other matter”, the bench ordered, invoking its extraordinary power for their release.

The bench of Justices B R Gavai and B V Nagarathna said that the convicts spent decades in prison and that their conduct in the prison was “satisfactory”.

The court also observed that the Tamil Nadu's elected government had recommended the release of all convicts — including Sriharan, the only woman convicted in the case and the country's longest-serving female prisoner — to the state governor, an official appointed by the federal government who repeatedly avoided endorsing the release request.

Gandhi, 47, who was a member of the Indian National Congress, was campaigning for an election in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991, when he was killed in a suicide bomb attack by the separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The group was fighting for a Tamil state in neighbouring Sri Lanka and assassinated Gandhi in retaliation for his decision as prime minister to send Indian troops to the island nation in 1987 to end the civil war.

The funeral procession for slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi moving through the crowded streets of New Delhi in May 1991. AFP

A special anti-terrorist court sentenced 26 people to death in January 1998, including Sriharan. A year later, the Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence of four, including Sriharan, and the life sentences of three others, while freeing 19 others under sentence of death.

The Supreme Court commuted Sriharan’s sentence to life imprisonment in 2000. In 2004, it had commuted the three other death sentences to life.

The four had appealed for a mercy petition in 2001, which was rejected by then-president Pratibha Patil in 2011. They had also appealed to several courts for reprieve.

Sriharan, 53, who is out on parole, appealed to the Supreme Court for early release after the Madras High Court turned her plea down.

She had filed a petition in the Supreme Court after it granted freedom to A G Perarivalan, one of the convicts in the case, in May this year.

The court had granted Perarivalan, who was 19 when he was arrested for his role in the assassination, for his “good conduct”. He had been jailed for more than 30 years.

The court exercised its special powers under Article 142, which enables it to pass orders to ensure “complete justice” in a case.

Sriharan had cited Perarivalan’s case as she sought relief.

“I am very happy because all six have been released and I thank all the judges of the Supreme Court with my whole heart … I was in prison for 32 years, it was very difficult,” Sriharan told a local news channel after the order.

The Congress called the verdict “unacceptable” and “untenable”.

“Supreme Court's decision to free the remaining killers of former PM Rajiv Gandhi is unacceptable and completely erroneous. Congress criticises it and finds it wholly untenable,” said Jairam Ramesh, Congress's general secretary in charge of communications, said.

Many in Tamil Nadu celebrated the release, including the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

“We welcome this decision … we had been actively pursuing it,” said DMK representative A Saravanan.

Updated: November 11, 2022, 6:42 PM