Rajiv Gandhi: Release of former Indian PM’s assassins sparks debate on justice and human rights

The premature release of all convicts in former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination case has sparked a debate on how to deal with those jailed for grievous crimes and whether their sentences can be remitted to uphold values of rehabilitation and human rights.

On Friday, over three decades after they were imprisoned, India’s Supreme Court ordered the premature release of all six convicts in the case, including Nalini Sriharan, Santhan alias Raviraj, Murugan, Robert Payas, Jayakumar, and Ravichandran alias Ravi.

A bench of Justices BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna said: “We direct that all the appellants are deemed to have served their sentence. The applicants are thus directed to be released unless required in any other case.”

The court noted its previous order from May, in which a bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and BR Gavai invoked special powers under Article 142 of the Indian constitution to release AG Perarivalan, another convict serving a life term in the case.

The court said Perarivalan’s order is applicable to the six other convicts as well. It also noted that the Tamil Nadu state government led by the political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had recommended the release of the convicts but it had not been acted upon by the state governor, reported LiveLaw.

The court said that in the Perarivalan case, it was held that the governor, in the matter of remission of an appellant convicted under Section 302 under the Indian Penal Code, was bound by the advice of the state government.

The court also noted that the behaviour of all six convicts had remained “satisfactory” in jail.

On Thursday, the federal government moved a review petition in the Supreme Court and said that the order has “errors apparent on the face of record” and falls “foul of principles of natural justice”.

The review plea said that the convicts who approached the court seeking remission had not made the Union of India a respondent “despite it being a necessary and proper party to the” issue.

The former prime minister was assassinated on 21 May 1991 by a suicide bomber at a poll rally in Tamil Nadu’s Sriperumbudur ahead of a general election in the country.

He was targeted by a team of Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger militants (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) — a rebel group fighting for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. The rebels were defeated by Sri Lankan troops in 2009.

Gandhi’s assassination was presumed to be in retaliation for his controversial decision to send Indian troops as a supposed peacekeeping force to the island state in the late 1980s.

The six convicts released last week along with Perarivalan were among 26 people found guilty of playing lesser roles in the plot to kill Gandhi. All 25 were sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in 1998.

The Supreme Court later acquitted 19 convicts but upheld the death penalty for four of them, including Perarivalan, Sriharan, Santhan and Nalini. Three others were sentenced to life in prison. In 2000, the Tamil Nadu government commuted Nalini’s sentence to a life term.

Subsequently in 2014, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of Perarivalan, Sriharan and Santhan to life imprisonment as well.

Following Perarivalan’s release order in May, Nalini and Ravichandran moved the Supreme Court after the Madras high court dismissed their petitions.

As the convicts walked out of jail after three decades on Saturday, the Congress party (to which Gandhi belonged), lashed out. The party’s communication in-charge Jairam Ramesh termed the decision “unacceptable” and “wholly untenable”.

The party said it disagreed with the Gandhi family which had spoken in favour of pardoning the convicts.

Party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said: “Sonia Gandhi (wife of Rajiv Gandhi), above all, is entitled to her personal views. But with greatest respect, the party doesn’t agree and has made our view clear.”

“We stand by that view because according to us, sovereignty, integrity, identity of the nation is involved in a PM’s assassination sitting or former. That’s perhaps why the central government has also never agreed with the state government’s view in this regard.”

The release of the convicts was also condemned by several political commentators who it was a “mockery” of justice.

Neena Gopal, author of ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’ and the last journalist to interview him before his assassination, says it left her with a sense of “unease”.

“I do have a great sense of unease over how death sentences are commuted to life and prisoners given such sentences are freed. All seven contributed in some way and were complicit in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination,” she tells The Independent.

She adds: “This is a case that affects national security.”

“The team of assassins — both Sri Lankan and Indian — that LTTE leader Prabhakaran, a foreigner, put together, given the sympathy they continue to enjoy in Tamil Nadu, continue to pose a threat to our nation.

“Their intent was to change and meddle with a purely internal matter — a national election — changing the course of history, leaving a major political party headless, the country without a leader. Each and every one of the conspirators were tracked down and arrested by the SIT [Special Investigation Team] after a thorough investigation. Now, that amounts to nothing,” she says.

Legal commentators say that the convicts have been released in consonance with India’s laws.

Anup Surendranath, professor of law at National Law University (NLU), says: “Except in a narrow set of circumstances, the law in India entitles individuals sentenced to life imprisonment to earn remission in prison and also have their sentences reviewed periodically after a minimum of 14 years imprisonment.”

“There is no right to be released after 14 years but you can have the government periodically review your sentence after that. Unreviewable life imprisonment till the end of natural life is a cruel and unconscionable punishment and we should not go down that path.

“The government in this case reviewed their life sentences and recommended their release after nearly three decades of imprisonment.”

It has opened a wider conversation around the criminal justice delivery system.

Their release comes just months after eleven men convicted of gangraping a pregnant woman Bilkis Bano during the 2002 Gujarat riots were allowed to walk free by the top court in August, sparking widespread outrage.

Last week, the Supreme Court also set free three men convicted of a brutal gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old woman in Delhi in 2012.

“Their release gives rise to a larger debate on, first, the delays in the justice system and second, whether the life imprisonment or death sentence should be remitted in cases of serious crimes especially in the light of the release of the Bilkis Bano convicts recently,” says political analyst Sandeep Shastri.

“What is required now is a larger debate on how you deal with a human complicity in a crime.”