India's top court halts release of men who killed former PM Rajiv Gandhi
By Trudy Harris, AFP
February 21, 2014, 12:06 am TWN
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 "contrary to 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, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staunchly rejected any right to freedom, saying Gandhi's 1991 assassination by a 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. "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 on Thursday, 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 must follow proper procedures.
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 Friday.
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 the Sri Lankan government to disarm the Tamil guerrillas.
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 frontman for general elections due by the end of May, 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, who 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.