Executions put focus on trio awaiting the noose

Three Indian men convicted of the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi could escape hanging in political manoeuvring over Tamil Nadu. Samanth Subramanian reports from New Delhi

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NEW DELHI // In the shadow of the execution of Afzal Guru, hanged for his role in a 2001 terrorist attack on parliament, India's most high-profile death-row inmates await an uncertain fate.

AG Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan - the latter two of whom use only one name - are lodged in a prison in Vellore, in the state of Tamil Nadu. In 1998, they were convicted of helping to plan the assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Their case, however, is problematic for the Congress-led central government because it goes to the heart of a political tussle between it and Tamil Nadu.

The death sentence for all three men was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1999. But when a date for their hanging was formally fixed in August 2011, the Madras High Court stayed the execution, accepting their plea that the 11-year period taken to reject their mercy petitions was unconstitutional.

Along with a handful of cases involving similar delays, their future is now in the hands of the Supreme Court, which will decide whether the men will be executed or not. Although the arguments on either side have been heard, no date has been set for a decision to be announced.

"Ideally, what should happen is for their execution to be set aside, on the grounds that the inordinate delay justifies a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment," said Colin Gonsalves, a lawyer who represented Mr Perarivalan in the Madras High Court in 2011.

Such delays are only too common. India has more than 400 convicts on death row, lodged in various prisons around the country, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau.

But the executions of Guru last Saturday and of Ajmal Kasab - who was hanged in November for participating in the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai - were the first in India in more than eight years.

Before these cases, the previous execution in India was in August 2004, when a convicted rapist, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, was hanged in Kolkata.

But in the high-profile case of Gandhi's assassination, the Congress Party risks losing ground in Tamil Nadu if it executes Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan.

The assassination was carried out under the orders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist militant outfit in Sri Lanka that was agitating for an independent state.

The ethnic and linguistic ties between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and those in India have often led Tamil Nadu's political parties to support the LTTE and its nationalist goals.

The LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan army in 2009 but its influence on the political process in Tamil Nadu is perceived to continue.

In 2011, even as the high court was hearing petitions from Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, the Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa's legislature passed a resolution pressing for a reconsideration of their mercy petitions.

Peer Mohamed, a Chennai-based political analyst, said that Ms Jayalalithaa, as well as her rival party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), are opposed to the execution of these three death-row convicts, and have lobbied to have their sentences commuted. These stances are, he noted, politically based.

"The Tamil nationalists are a minority in the state's electorate, but they are a vocal minority, and their opinions can spiral down fast," Mr Mohamed said.

"Jayalalithaa was not known for such gestures [like the 2011 resolution] earlier, but she has realised the electoral potential of this vocal minority and jumped on the bandwagon."

But TKS Elangovan, the organisation secretary of the DMK, said his party was opposed to the death penalty.

"Not only for this case, but for all cases, we think the maximum punishment should be life imprisonment."

Rajiv Gandhi was a leader of the Congress Party, which heads the coalition governing India. But the party's weakening political presence in Tamil Nadu was another reason that the executions had been delayed, said Mr Mohamed.

In state-assembly elections in 2011, the Congress earned only 9.3 per cent of votes in Tamil Nadu, down from its usual range of between 13 and 17 per cent.

"So the Congress knows it will lose further ground in the state if these executions happen," Mr Mohamed said.

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