NEW DELHI: The chief minister of an Indian state Wednesday ordered the release of all seven people jailed for plotting the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, meaning they could walk free in days.
J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, announced the decision one day after the country’s top court lifted the death sentences on three of those convicted over Gandhi’s killing in a 1991 suicide bomb attack.
“Considering that they have spent over 23 years in prison, the cabinet decided to immediately release Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan under the powers vested with the state government,” Jayalalithaa said, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency, after a cabinet meeting.
Jayalalithaa said she would also release four others including a woman who are serving life sentences for their roles in the murder.
Gandhi was killed by a female Tamil suicide bomber in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalithaa, quoted by PTI, said the cases would be sent to the federal government immediately for its approval of the release as required.
Her administration would go ahead with their release if the Congress-led federal government failed to respond within three days, PTI said.
Rahul Gandhi, the vice-president of Congress party and the son of the assassinated prime minister, expressed displeasure at the chief minister’s decision.
“If a prime minister cannot get justice, how can a poor man get justice?” Gandhi said during a rally in Amethi, a political constituency in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has elected him to the lower house of the Indian parliament.
A lawyer for the three men who had been on death row told AFP that since the attack happened in Tamil Nadu, the state government was allowed to remit their sentences once they had served at least 14 years behind bars.
“The state needs to now consult with the central government because a central agency had investigated the case,” said lawyer Yug Mohit Chaudhary.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who hails from Tamil Nadu, indicated that the government would not try to block the release.
“Our grief is an irreparable grief. Our grief is because Rajiv Gandhi was killed, brutally killed,” he told the NDTV network.
“If they walk free, they walk free after 20-22 years in prison. So that’s it.”
The Congress party is headed by Rajiv Gandhi’s widow Sonia and his son Rahul is the frontman for the party’s campaign in elections due by May.
Rajiv’s daughter Priyanka Gandhi in 2008 visited one of those jailed in Tamil Nadu for her father’s murder, seeking to come to terms with her loss. Sonia has in the past argued against their execution.
Rajiv Gandhi became India’s youngest-ever prime minister after his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984.
He ruled until losing an election five years later.
On Tuesday the Supreme Court cited lengthy delays for its decision to commute the death sentences of the three men who had been on death row.
The court said successive Indian presidents had taken 11 years to decide on their pleas for mercy before making a decision against clemency in 2011.
The three were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan-based separatist guerrilla movement which was wiped out by Colombo’s military in 2009.
Gandhi’s killing was seen in India as retaliation for a 1987 Indian government pact with the Sri Lankan government to disarm the guerrillas, who had been trained and armed by New Delhi in the early 1980s.
After that pact, the LTTE fought Indian troops deployed to Sri Lanka by Gandhi’s government to supervise the accord.