Rajiv Gandhi’s killers cannot immediately walk free, the Supreme Court on Thursday told the Tamil Nadu government, acting on the Centre’s petition seeking a stay on chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s decision to release them.
The union home ministry and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also categorically told the state government not to free the seven convicts, saying the move would be legally untenable. “The assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India,” Singh said in a statement, adding that freeing his killers would be contrary to the principals of justice.
A day after the top court commuted the death sentence of three convicts — Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan — to life on grounds of inordinate delay, Jayalalithaa had on Wednesday announced she would release them as well as the other four serving life terms under the provisions of the criminal procedure code (CrPC). She had asked the Centre to give its views “within three days”, after which she’d set them free.
But at an urgent hearing on Thursday, the SC observed, “Commutation of death sentence into life cannot automatically lead to release.” It said the state would have to follow procedure.
In its application, the UPA government said the state wasn’t authorized to release the convicts, and definitely not till the court had decided the Centre’s review plea against its February 18 verdict commuting the convicts’ death sentence to life.
Since the Centre’s application did not mention the names of the remaining four prisoners, the court didn’t pass any order against them. But solicitor general Mohan Parasaran said the ruling applied to them as well. “The issue as to what is the appropriate government — state or Centre — to release the prisoners is being debated before SC. Release of the four not mentioned in the order would amount to violating the spirit of the SC order,” he told HT.
Notices have been issued to the three convicts, the state, inspector general of prisons Chennai and superintendent of central prison Vellore Jail, seeking their response by March 6, the next date of hearing. Subramanium Prasad, counsel for the state, said they would contest the Centre’s claim and place their stand in court on March 6.
The home ministry conveyed to the state that the seven were prosecuted by a central agency (CBI) under central laws like TADA (now repealed) and the arms act, and that section 435 of the CrPC says in such cases state governments can’t go ahead with remission or commutation of sentence without consulting the Centre.
The state’s decision has been severely criticised. The BJP’s Arun Jaitley called it a case of misconceived compassion while the Congress’ Anand Sharma said terrorism and assassinations can’t be “politically legitimised”.
Read: Families of those who died with Rajiv Gandhi seek answers