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Seven convicted for the assassination of former PM Rajiv Gandhi have been in prison for the past 27 years; death sentences of three had been commuted in 2014

Days after the Supreme Court gave Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit the liberty to decide on the plea for remission of sentences of those convicted for the 1991 assassination plot that ended former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s life, the Tamil Nadu cabinet has recommended to the Governor that he use his constitutional powers to allow release of the seven convicts.

The unanimous recommendation by the cabinet of chief minister E Palaniswami, sent to Purohit on Sunday evening, has urged the Governor to use his powers granted under Article 161 of the Constitution to allow the remission of life sentences given to the convicts who have been in prison for the past 27 years.

“The Governor, who is the executive authority of the state, will execute the decision taken by the government,” D Jayakumar, State Fisheries Minister, told reporters after the cabinet meeting on Sunday (September 9).

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court had asked authorities concerned in Tamil Nadu and at the Centre to decide on a writ petition filed by AG Perarivalan, one of the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The top court had left it to the Tamil Nadu Governor to decide on the fate of Perarivalan’s plea for being set free from prison. The decision of the state cabinet, which now paves the way for the release of the seven convicts, has predictably been welcomed by the state’s main Opposition party, the DMK, and also by other Dravidian outfits of the southern state, including the ruling AIADMK’s breakaway faction led by TTV Dhinakaran.

Following the cabinet’s recommendation, Perarivalan’s mother Arputhammal met Chief Minister Palaniswami to thank him. It may be recalled that in September 2017, Palaniswami had granted one-month parole for Perarivalan which was later extended by another month.

The decision of the apex court to allow the Tamil Nadu Governor to rule on the plea moved by Perarivalan had come after the Centre informed it, on August 10, that it did not agree with or support the state government’s proposal to release the seven convicts. The Centre had argued that remission of sentence of those convicted for hatching and then executing a plot to assassinate a former prime minister would set a “dangerous precedent” and have “international ramifications”.

The counsels for 47-year-old Perarivalan had then submitted before the Supreme Court that no decision had been taken on their client’s mercy plea that had been filed before the Tamil Nadu Governor on December 30, 2015 invoking Article 161 of the Constitution. The top court had said that the authority concerned (the Governor in this case) was at liberty to decide on the petition.

Earlier, a top court bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Naveen Sinha and K M Joseph had also been apprised by the counsels for Perarivalan that he had served over 24 years of solitary confinement and that the total span of his incarceration had exceeded 27 years even though life imprisonment technically extends for a maximum of 20 years.

It is pertinent to point out that in 2014, the Supreme Court had commuted the death sentence of Perarivalan and two of his aides – Santhan and Murugan – to life terms on grounds of double jeopardy. The then J Jayalalithaa government had later decided to release the convicts but the decision was stayed by the Supreme Court following opposition from the Centre.

On March 2, 2016, the Tamil Nadu government had once again sought the Centre’s concurrence on releasing the seven convicts. The matter had then reached the Supreme Court which directed the Centre, in January 2017, to decide on Perarivalan’s plea within three months.

Perarivalan, who was 19 years old at the time of his arrest in June 1991, had been charged with and later convicted for supplying a 9-volt battery that was used for the belt bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi and 14 others on the night of May 21, 1991 at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. The actual assassination was executed by a woman, Dhanu, an operative of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had approached the former prime minister during an election rally in Sriperumbudur wearing an explosives laden bomb which she triggered while touching the Congress leader’s feet. Nine policemen were among those killed in the incident while 43 others were injured.

The Special Investigation Team into the assassination had chargesheeted 41 accused, of whom 26 were tried – all 26 were sentenced to death by a TADA court. A dozen LTTE operatives, including one of the masterminds Sivarasan and his accomplice Shuba, had committed suicide. Three were declared absconders.

In his petition, Perarivalan had claimed that the assassination probe had remained incomplete. In 2013, CBI SP V Thiagarajan, who had recorded Perarivalan’s confession under TADA, claimed that he had altered the original statement of the accused. The officer, who had retired by the time he made this revelation, had claimed that Perarivalan never said he knew the battery he bought would be used to make the bomb that killed the former prime minister.

In May 1999, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan and Nalini, but commuted the death sentence of three others to life. Of the original 26 convicted and sentenced to death, 19 were set free by the Supreme Court. Nalini’s sentence too was commuted to life by the then Tamil Nadu Governor in April 2000 following a recommendation by the then state government and an appeal for mercy by Rajiv Gandhi’s wife and then Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Sonia’s daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, has often gone on record stating that she had forgiven Nalini and her accomplices for assassinating her father.

Besides Perarivalan, Nalini, her husband Murugan and Santan (both Sri Lankan nationals), the others who stand to be set free from jail if the Tamil Nadu Governor accepts the state cabinet’s recommendation are alleged LTTE operatives Ravichandran (serving time in a Madurai prison), Robert Payas and Jayakumar (Sri Lankan citizens).

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