Although its order to the Tamil Nadu government covered only three convicts whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment Feb 18, it would apply to the other four as well as the court said it was examining the larger issue of procedural lapse.
Solicitor General Mohan Prasaran said the central government's application named only three convicts but other four too would be impacted by the order.
Ordering status quo, a bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice N.V. Ramana said it would examine the procedural lapses in the Tamil Nadu government's decision to release within three days the three convicts along with four others in the case.
Justice Sathasivam said: "When death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, then the state has to give special reasons for granting remission."
While issuing notice to the Tamil Nadu government, V. Sriharan alias Murugan and T. Suthendraraja alias Santhan (Sri Lankans) and A.G. Perarivalan alias Arivu (Indian), the court said: "Till such date, both parties are directed to maintain status quo."
On Wednesday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha ordered the release of the seven, including three Indian and four Sri Lankan Tamils, convicted in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
The other four convicts are Robert Payas and Jayakumar (Sri Lankans) as well as Nalini and Ravichandran (Indians).
A Tamil Tiger woman suicide bomber strapped with explosives assassinated Gandhi at an election rally near Chennai May 21, 1991. The suicide bomber was among the some 15 people who also died in the explosion.
The next year, India outlawed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was eventually crushed by the Sri Lankan military in 2009, ending a quarter century long separatist conflict in the island.
The court order Thursday came as Prasaran said the decision to free the convicts could not be taken without the approval of the central government whose investigating agency probed the assassination leading to their conviction.
Describing the Tamil Nadu decision as a blatant violation of law, Prasaran said under section 432(7) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the central government was the competent government for grant of remission of sentence in the Gandhi assassination case.
Noting the pace of events, Chief Justice Sathasivam said their judgment commuting the death sentence of three was delivered Tuesday morning, while the decision to free them was taken Wednesday morning.
"We are not expressing any view. We are now concerned with procedural lapse," the court said.
Justice Sathasivam said the requirement of section 433-A of the Code of Criminal Procedure stood satisfied but other procedural requirements under Section 432 were not met.
Section 433-A says a life term convict should have undergone 14 years sentence before being eligible for remission of sentence.
The chief justice said life imprisonment means end of one's life, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate government under section 432 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which is subject to procedural checks.
Opposing the central government, the Tamil Nadu government said the order of status quo would be premature and no final decision had been taken on the grant of remission to the seven convicts.
The recommendation of the state government was before the central government, the Tamil Nadu government said. The court listed the matter for March 6.