Seven people convicted over the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi more than 20 years ago are to be set free. The decision has been condemned by Mr Gandhi’s son, Rahul, who said the move saddened him.
Jayaram Jayalalitha, chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where Mr Gandhi was killed by a female suicide bomber in 1991, told politicians on Wednesday morning that she had reached the decision as all the prisoners had served more than 20 years.
The decision came a day after India’s highest court commuted the death sentence of three of the seven prisoners to life imprisonment. Their lawyers had argued that to hang them now after such a long imprisonment would represent double punishment.
But the late prime minister's son, Rahul Gandhi, who as a 20-year-old lit his father’s sandalwood funeral pyre and who is currently heading the ruling Congress party’s election campaign, said he was sad the convicted people were being released, though he was opposed to the death penalty.
“If some person kills the PM and is released then how will a common man get justice. It’s a point to ponder,” he said during an election rally in Uttar Pradesh, according to the Press Trust of India. “In this country even the PM does not get justice. This is my heart’s voice.”
Mr Gandhi, 47, was killed in May 1991 at Sriperumbudur, 25 miles west of the city of Chennai, while he too was campaigning ahead of a general election. He was targeted by a team of Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger militants who were seeking revenge for his controversial decision to send Indian troops to the island in the late 1980s.
The troops were dispatched as a supposed peacekeeping force to try and end the civil war, but Indian troops found themselves clashing repeatedly with Tamil militants. 17 other people were killed in the attack on Mr Gandhi, including the bomber, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam.
The seven convicts were among 26 people found guilty of playing lesser roles in the plot to kill Mr Gandhi. They are the only ones still in prison for the assassination, with some of the others having died in jail and some having been released.
The decision has clear political implications as India prepares for elections just a couple of months away. In Tamil Nadu, two powerful regional parties are keen to secure the support of Tamils who may have sympathy for the separatist cause on Sri Lanka.
Both Ms Jayalalitha, who heads the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and her main rival, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who leads the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and who has served as chief minister on five occasions, have both previously been major players in national coalition governments.
“Traditionally in India, prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment are released after 14 years for good behaviour. Lots of human rights groups were asking for their release but it was not done,” said Gnani Sankaran, a Tamil writer and analyst.
“Now ahead of the [parliamentary] election it’s being done for purely political reasons. Jayalalitha hopes it could get her some emotional support from the Tamil population.”
India’s federal government must approve the decision before the prisoners can be released but Ms Jayalalitha said she would wait only three days. “If the federal government fails to respond in three days, we will release all of them on our own,” she said.
Among those to be set free is Nalini Sriharan, a Tamil woman who was part of the team that targeted Mr Gandhi. She was initially given the death sentence but this was changed to life imprisonment after the intervention of Mr Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, who currently heads the ruling Congress party.
She had appealed for clemency because the prisoner had a young child. In 2008, Priyanka Gandhi, the daughter of Rajiv and Sonia, visited the convict in prison. ‘I needed to make peace with all the violence in my life,” she later said.
The assassination of Mr Gandhi followed the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’s mother, Indira, in 1984. Following Mr Gandhi’s assassination, his widow ordered that the remains of the clothes and running shoes he was wearing were preserved.
They are on display at the Indira Gandhi Memorial in Delhi, close to the sari Mrs Gandhi was wearing when she assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath of a military operation against Sikh militants at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.