India's top court halts release of Rajiv Gandhi killers

(FILES) In this photograph taken on May 24, 1991, the funeral procession for slain Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi moves along a crowded street in New Delhi. AFP PHOTO/Douglas E. CURRAN/FILES

NEW DELHI: India's top court on Thursday blocked the release of three of former premier Rajiv Gandhi's killers after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denounced their freeing as against all principles of justice.

They were among seven Tamil extremists who had been due to walk free from prison by this weekend after the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state on Wednesday ordered their release, sparking political uproar.

Announcing legal action against the move, Singh staunchly rejected any right to freedom, saying Gandhi's 1991 assassination by a female suicide bomber was an attack on the nation's soul.

"The assassination of Shri (honorific) Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India," Singh said in a statement on Thursday. "No government or party should be soft in our fight against terrorism," he added.

"The release of the killers of a former Prime Minister of India and our great leader, as well as several other innocent Indians, would be contrary to all principles of justice."

After agreeing to an urgent hearing, a Supreme Court bench ordered the Tamil Nadu government to maintain the "status quo" for three of the seven until it had a chance to examine the issue thoroughly.

The bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam said although Tamil Nadu in the country's south had the right to release the prisoners, it was concerned about "procedural lapses."

The court said the Congress-led national government could file a fresh petition for the remaining four who are serving life sentences, although it was unclear if this could halt their release by the weekend.

Government lawyer Ashok Bhan, who was involved in the case, told NDTV that Tamil Nadu was unlikely to go ahead with releasing the four given the "mood of the court."

In a surprise move, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa had ordered the seven's release one day after the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence handed down on three convicted over their role in the assassination in her state.

Rajiv Gandhi, whose widow Sonia is now president of Singh's Congress party, was targeted by Tamil Tiger separatists while he was campaigning in the southern state in May 1991 before an election.

His killing was seen as retaliation for a 1987 Indian government pact with Sri Lanka to disarm the Tamil guerrillas. India later withdraw its troops deployed to the island after losing 1,200 at the hands of the rebels.

Rajiv became India's youngest-ever leader after his mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984. He ruled until losing an election five years later.

His son Rahul, who is the Congress vice president and the party's frontman for the looming general elections, voiced his sadness on Wednesday over Jayalalithaa's decision.

"If some person kills the PM and is released then how will a common man... get justice?" said Rahul.

He was only 20 at the time of the suicide bomb attack which killed 16 other people.

"In this country even the PM does not get justice. This is my heart's voice," Gandhi was quoted as saying by local media.

- 'Playing politics' - Several newspapers said Thursday Jayalalithaa's decision was motivated by a desire to woo Tamil voters for her regional party at the elections due by the end of May, with The Times of India declaring in a front-page headline: "Jaya plays politics".

Neelam Deo, director of the Mumbai-based Gateway House think-tank, said Jayalalithaa had been a staunch critic of the Tamil Tigers, but was nevertheless sensitive to the sympathy felt by voters in her state towards the minority Tamil population in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

"There is no popular backing for the LTTE (Tigers) in Tamil Nadu. That evaporated after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. What remains is support for the rights and dignity of Sri Lankan Tamils," said Deo.

Amid the growing controversy over the release order, the daughter of two of those who had been due to go free appealed for forgiveness from the Gandhi family, saying she understood the pain felt by Rahul.

"I'm really sorry for Rahul Gandhi. My parents have regretted enough, they deserve forgiveness. I can understand losing someone you love," 22-year-old Harithra Sriharan told India's NDTV network.

"I have suffered the same punishment. I deserve to be with my parents. Though I have parents who are alive, I have never had them," Sriharan, who lives in Britain, said in a phone interview.





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