TN government can't free Rajiv Gandhi killers by diktat: SC

The Supreme Court today stayed the release of seven prisoners convicted for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, observing in effect that the J Jayalalithaa-led Tamil Nadu government did not have the power to declare such a total amnesty.

Supreme Court Earlier today, the union government had challenged the state government's decision publicly declared by the chief minister, and the apex court agreed to take up the issue promptly.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam has now directed the state government to maintain the status quo on the three convicts whose death sentence had been commuted to life by the apex court on Tuesday, on the ground that they had been languishing on death row for almost 20 years.

The bench further said the Centre could file a fresh petition regarding the other four prisoners whose sentences have also been remitted. It also issued a notice to the convicts concerned asking them to file their response within two weeks.

The judges observed that all procedural checks laid down in the law have not been followed by the state government and it will examine the issues raised by the Centre. "We are concerned with procedural lapses (by Tamil Nadu) and we will examine it," Chief Justice Sathasivam said, while posting the case to 6 March for further hearing.

The bench added that the commutation of a death sentence to life imprisonment cannot automatically result in remission of the sentence, and proper legal procedures have to be followed before releasing the prisoners from jail.

The Jayalalithaa government had on Wednesday decided to set free all seven convicts after the apex court commuted the death penalty of three of them to life imprisonment.

Rajiv Gandhi's assassins were convicted by a TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities) court in January 1998 and were awarded the death sentence, which was confirmed by the Supreme Court on 11 May 1999.

(See: Centre moves SC against TN move to free Rajiv killers)