SC refers TN move to free 7 Rajiv Gandhi killers to larger bench

Seven of the persons convicted for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi will remain in jail at least for now despite the Tamil Nadu government's moves to set them at large, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Supreme Court A constitution bench will decide on whether they can be granted freedom, and whether the union or state government can set them free, a bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam ruled, adding that a constitution bench of five or more judges will be set up within three months.

The seven convicts listed in the case are all in jail in Tamil Nadu; and each of them has spent more than 20 years in prison. The state government relied on a precedent-setting ruling by the apex court in February that said inordinate delay in deciding on mercy petitions, or mental illness during excessively long incarceration, are grounds for commuting a death sentence. But the union government approached the court opposing the move.

The constitution bench will now decide whether the Tamil Nadu government can actually free a life-term convict whose death sentence has been converted into life imprisonment.

The bench framed seven questions to be addressed by the Constitution Bench, including whether after commutation of a death sentence to life imprisonment, the government can grant them further remission by releasing them.

The court also said that the constitution bench will address which is the appropriate government for such a move under the code of criminal procedure - the state or the central government or both.

Notably, Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam, who headed today's bench, will retire at the end of today.

Rajiv Gandhi, who was the prime minister 1984-89, was killed by Dhanu, a Sri Lankan suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), at an election rally in Sriperumbudur near Chennai on 21 May 1991.

In 1998, all the 26 accused in the case were sentenced to death by a special trial court. The Supreme Court subsequently confirmed the death sentences on four – Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan and Nalini – while the capital punishment to the others was reduced to varying terms of imprisonment.

Santhan, Murugan and Arivu are currently lodged in the Central Prison, Vellore and they are in jail since 1991. The other four are serving life sentences in Sriperumbudur.