India’s government on Thursday asked the Supreme Court to stop the state of Tamil Nadu from releasing seven prisoners serving life sentences for the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The state ruled Wednesday that the seven should be released because they have served more than 20 years in prison. Critics immediately slammed the decision, calling it a transparent attempt to win over Tamil voters in this year’s national elections.
The issue triggered noisy scenes when the lower house of India’s Parliament met Thursday, with lawmakers from the ruling Congress Party strongly protesting the state government’s decision. The speaker adjourned the session for an hour to cool the tempers.
Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu in May 1991 as he campaigned for a return to the post of prime minister. He was 47 years old. Seventeen other people, including the bomber, also were killed in the attack.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formally asked the state not to free the convicts.
“We have informed the Tamil Nadu government that their proposed course of action to release the killers of Rajiv Gandhi is not legally tenable and should not be proceeded with,” Singh said in a statement to the media.
He said Gandhi’s assassination was “an attack on the soul of India.”
“No government or party should be soft in our fight against terrorism,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, the federal government asked the Supreme Court to prevent the state from freeing the seven prisoners. Law Minister Kapil Sibal said the government expected the court to respond to its petition later Thursday.
K.T.S. Tulsi, a legal expert, said the federal government must approve the state’s decision before the prisoners — six men and one woman — can be released.
But Jayaram Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu’s top elected official, said Wednesday that if the federal government failed to respond in three days, the state would release the prisoners on its own.
Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv Gandhi and Congress Party vice-president, said he was opposed to hanging the convicts, but criticized the state’s decision to free them. His mother and the Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi, said in 1999 that nobody should be hanged in the case.
The state government’s decision came a day after India’s Supreme Court commuted three of the seven convicts’ death sentences to life in prison. Their lawyers argued that executing the three now, after they had already served long prison terms, would amount to an unconstitutional double punishment.
The seven convicts, who were among 26 people convicted of playing minor roles in the plot to kill Gandhi, are the only ones still in prison for the assassination. Some others died in prison or were released.
The assassination was orchestrated by Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels to avenge Rahul Gandhi’s decision to send Indian troops to intervene in the country’s civil war in the 1980s.
While the convicts have been reviled across much of India, many ethnic Tamils in the south believe they were duped into taking part in a plot they knew little about. The people of Tamil Nadu have a strong affinity with Tamils living in northern Sri Lanka.
With Indian national elections due to be held by May, two powerful state parties led by Jayalalitha and her rival, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, are eager to gain the support of Tamils sympathetic to the cause of Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka.