The Supreme Court Tuesday commuted the death sentence to three key conspirators in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, holding the 11-year delay in deciding their mercy petitions "unreasonable and dehumanising". Political parties in Tamil Nadu as well as the elated families have now demanded the trio's release.
A bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh said: "We commute their death sentence into imprisonment for life. Life imprisonment means end of one's life, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate government."
The decision takes to four the number of death row convicts in the case whose sentences have been commuted.
The three who escaped the gallows are V. Sriharan alias Murugan, A.G. Perarivalan alias Arivu and T. Suthendraraja alias Santhan, currently lodged in Tamil Nadu's Vellore prison. They had sought commutation of their death sentences due to the long delay in deciding their mercy petitions.
Rajiv Gandhi, who was the prime minister 1984-89, was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber Dhanu at an election rally in Sriperumbudur near Chennai May 21, 1991. Fourteen other people also lost their lives in the blast.
In 1998, all the 26 accused in the case were sentenced to death by a special trial court.
In 1999, the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences of four - Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan and Nalini - while the capital punishment to the others was reduced to varying terms of imprisonment.
While Perarivalan and Nalini are Indians, the other two are Sri Lankan Tamils. Sriharan was a member of the intelligence wing of the now vanquished Tamil Tigers, whose leader V. Prabhakaran ordered Gandhi's assassination.
The death sentence of Nalini, who is married to Murugan and who became a mother in prison, was commuted to life imprisonment after her mercy petition was accepted. The petition had the recommendation of Gandhi's widow Sonia Gandhi.
The mercy petitions of the three men were rejected by the Tamil Nadu governor April 25, 2004, and forwarded to the union home ministry May 5, 2004.
After over five years, the ministry forwarded the petitions to the president but recalled them Feb 23, 2011. Eventually, the president rejected the mercy petitions Aug 12, 2011, after more than 11 years of the apex court judgment.
The rejection was challenged in the Madras High Court Aug 29, 2011. In May 2012, the Supreme Court transferred the case to itself.
In its verdict Tuesday, the apex court said the delay in deciding the mercy petitions was "inordinate and unreasonable".
Chief Justice Sathasivam, junking the government's contention that the death row convict needed to prove that he suffered during the prolonged delay in deciding his mercy petition, said that there was no such requirement in Indian law as well as in international judgments.
The court addressed two questions - whether the nature of delay caused was reasonable or inordinate and whether the dehumanising effect on the accused due to delay has to be ascertained or mere delay on the face of it was sufficient for commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment.
Divya Iyer, a researcher at Amnesty International India, said: "The positive rulings of commutations of January 2014 and those of today offer context and impetus for India to move towards a direction of a society that can be free of the death penalty."
Expressing happiness at the Supreme Court's decision, DMK president M. Karunanidhi urged the central and state governments to release the convicts from jail.
MDMK leader Vaiko said the judgement should be etched in golden letters in India's judicial history and also demanded their release.
Communist Party of India's Tamil Nadu secretary D. Pandian also urged the state government to release the convicts as they have spent more than two decades behind bars.
Elated at the news, Perarivalan's mother Arputhammal told the media that she now hoped the Tamil Nadu chief minister would help in her son's release.
Murugan's mother Somani also met her son in Vellore. She thanked the media and others for their support.