The Madras high court on Tuesday stayed the September 9 execution of three assassins of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for eight weeks even as the Tamil Nadu assembly appealed to President Pratibha Patil to reconsider their mercy pleas.
The interim stay came on a review petition of the death row convicts, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan.
A division bench comprising justice C Nagappan and justice M Satyanaranan directed the Centre to explain the delay – 11 years and four months – in the rejection of their clemency petitions.
The trio is on death row for assassinating the former prime minister at an election rally at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991. The trio has been charged with conspiring to Gandhi’s murder by a suicide bomber. Fourteen others were killed in the attack linked to the LTTE.
The legal battle to save the three from the gallows was led by lawyer Ram Jethmalani and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko, who represented Perarivalan.
Jethmalani questioned the decision to hang the convicts after keeping them in suspense over the mercy petitions for more than 11 years.
“The delay, unless properly explained and justified, makes the death penalty immoral, illegal and, according to me, unconstitutional,” he argued in the courtroom, which was packed an hour before proceedings began at 10.30am.
Vaiko told the court that the death row convicts had been shifted to condemned prisoners’ cells at the Vellore Central Prison. He sought their transfer from these cells and the court agreed.
The stay order came minutes after the assembly unanimously passed a resolution, moved by chief minister J Jayalalithaa, urging the President to review the mercy petitions.
Former chief minister M Karunanidhi said the Centre should free the convicts because they had spent more than 20 years in jail.
The court ruling and the assembly resolution – 10 days before the convicts are to be hanged – were in accordance with popular sentiments sweeping across the state.
Cheered by hundreds of people – campaigning for mercy for the convicts – on the court premises, Perarivalan’s mother Arputhammal said, “I am thankful to the judiciary, the assembly and above all, all the people who came to support my innocent son.”