India's supreme court says Rajiv Gandhi killers cannot be released

Supreme court steps in to prevent release of death row trio convicted of murder of former prime minister in 1991

India's supreme court has stepped in to prevent the release of three men sentenced to death for their role in the assassination of India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, according to reports on Thursday.

The court said the three - Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, who were on death row – cannot be released by the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, where the attack took place and where they are being held.

Four others serving life sentences, including Murugan's wife, Nalini, could still go free.

The court set a date of 6 March for further deliberations.

On Tuesday, India's supreme court commuted death sentences for the men to life in prison, because it said they had languished too long in legal limbo. They had neither been put to death nor had their mercy petitions heard.

On Wednesday, in a move that surprised much of the country, Tamil Nadu's chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalitha, said she would use legal provisions under the Indian criminal code to release all seven prisoners early. She gave the government three days to respond.

"If [the federal government] fails to respond in three days, we will release all of them on our own," she told the state legislature.

According to Indian criminal law, the leader of a state can release convicted prisoners serving life terms early as long as they have served at least 14 years of their sentence. But the central government must be consulted, since it originally prosecuted the cases.

However, Jayalalitha's counsel at the supreme court, Rakesh Dwivedi, said she was only required to consult the government, not seek approval.

On Thursday, India's Congress party, led by Rajiv's widow, Sonia, and his son, Rahul, who is the next likely prime ministerial candidate, filed a petition with the supreme court challenging the releases.

"The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India," the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said in the statement issued soon after the government filed its legal challenge.

The showdown pits the Gandhi dynasty and its ailing Congress party against a powerful regional leader who may be key to forming the next national government.

Rajiv Gandhi was killed in May 1991 at a campaign rally in the town of Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. A female suicide bomber detonated explosives as she bent to touch his feet, a way of showing respect in India. He was 47.

Eighteen people, including Gandhi and the bomber, were killed in the blast, organised by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels as punishment for Indian forces being sent to their country.

The Indian government originally prosecuted 26 people in the case. However, 19 were acquitted in 1999, leaving the seven currently in prison. That same year, Sonia Gandhi said she did not believe anyone should be put to death.

In 2008, Rajiv Gandhi's daughter, Priyanka, secretly visited Nalini Sriharan in prison in Vellore. Shriharan had given birth to a daughter while facing trial and had her death sentence commuted to life with the blessing of Sonia Gandhi.

"Meeting with Ms Nalini was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss that I have experienced," Priyanka, who was 19 when her father died, said at the time. "I do not believe in anger, hatred and violence and I refuse to allow it any power over my life."

But Wednesday, despite these overtures, Rahul Gandhi expressed his anger at the possibility of the releases.

"I am saddened by this," he said. "If a prime minister's killers are being released, what kind of justice should the common man expect?"

However, the families of the prisoners have expressed happiness and relief.

"I'm very very very happy," Harithra Murugan, the daughter of Nalini Shriharan and Murugan, told India's NDTV news channel by phone early Thursday, before the latest supreme court decision. "I knew one day they're going to get released. I know they are innocent."

Harithra Murugan has kept a low profile for security reasons, but she was born in prison in 1992 as her mother faced trial. She later emigrated with her extended family to the UK. According to The Hindu she now lives in London.

Under Thursday's supreme court ruling, her father, Murugan, cannot be released. But her mother, Nalini, still may go free if Jayalalitha keeps her word.

Anu Anand in New Delhi

The GuardianTramp

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