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The killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi will soon walk free, Tamil Nadu declared on Wednesday, a heavily political decision that angered Congress but is likely to win votes for the state's ruling party.
The seven convicts to be let go from Vellore prison include three -- Santhan, Perarivalan and Murugan -- whose death penalty was commuted to a life term by the Supreme Court on Tuesday on the grounds that the central government had taken too long to decide on their mercy pleas. The court had left a decision on remission of the sentences to the state government. The Rajiv files
Chief minister J Jayalalithaa announced the release after an emergency cabinet meeting, and promptly gave the Centre a deadline to accept her proposal. This could set her on a collision course with the union home ministry, which, a senior source said, was in no hurry to comply.
"'The state government will send the Cabinet's decision to the Centre. If the Centre fails to respond in three days, my government will release them immediately under the power conferred on it by the Constitution,' the CM told the state assembly, adding that it was mandatory for the state to consult Delhi because the case had been investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Rajiv's son and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, speaking in Amethi, said he was saddened by the decision. " I am personally against the death penalty but this is not about my father. If a Prime Minister's killers are being released, what kind of justice should the common man expect?" he said.
"The Congress Party condemns the decision," chief spokesman Ajay Maken said in a statement, adding that "it was guided solely by political considerations to suit sectarian vested interests".
But a measure of how emotive the Sri Lankan Tamil issue still is in Tamil Nadu (TN), and how much of an electoral hot potato, could be gauged by the reaction of finance minister P Chidambaram, a Tamilian, who told NDTV that he was "not unhappy" with the decision.
The seven were jailed after the 1991 assassination of Rajiv by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur near Chennai. The killers owe allegiance to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist movement that targeted Rajiv because he sent Indian troops to help quell their revolt in India's island neighbour.
Hurdles to their release could come from the home ministry.
“We have not received any correspondence from the state in this regard but section 435 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) is very clear that any case investigated by a central agency under a central law, in this it was TADA, cannot go ahead for remission or commutation of sentence with consulting the Centre. Besides the law says there was a need to a have separate commutation order from the Centre as well,” said a senior-level source.
The mother of Perarivalan, the lone Indian among the three main accused, said she was "very happy" at the TN decision.
"Amma (Jayalalithaa) is very considerate about the pain of another mother. She has put an end to my pain,' Aruputhammal told PTI news agency. Perarivalan topped a diploma examination and earned a gold medal in a desk top publishing course in the jail last year.
Underscoring the bitter rivalry in state politics, Jayalalithaa, who heads the ruling AIADMK, accused her main opposition, the DMK -- a one-time ally of the Congress in the Centre -- of dragging its feet on the commutation despite the TN assembly adopting a resolution seeking commutation of the death sentence two and a half years ago.
'Even though the DMK was part of the Congress-led UPA, it did not press the Centre to take a decision,' she charged.
The death sentence of one of the convicts, Murugan's wife Nalini, was commuted to life in 2000 after Congress president Sonia Gandhi recommended her case on humanitarian grounds.
Vaiko, the leader of another state party, MDMK, extended his 'heartiest congratulations and gratitude to the Tamil Nadu government.' He has been a campaigner for the cause of the convicts.
(with agency inputs)