New Delhi: The Supreme Court today stopped Tamil Nadu from releasing convicts in the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, which was seen as a populist and politically-loaded decision ahead of the national election due by May.
Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam said, "We are concerned with procedural lapses and we will examine it." The court will take up the case next on March 6.
The Centre had challenged the Jayalalithaa government's right to grant freedom to three of the convicts, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, who had been spared execution by the Supreme Court on Tuesday because of an exceptional delay in a decision on their mercy plea.
The three men can't be released for now, says the Supreme Court, which will take up the case next on March 6. Four others are serving life term, including Murugan's wife Nalini Sriharan, who was granted mercy on Congress president Sonia Gandhi's intervention.
The Tamil Nadu government interpreted the court's order to claim that these four can technically be released anytime. All the convicts have spent 23 years in jail.
Less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of the three men to life term on Tuesday, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced that all seven convicts in the case would be freed. She asked the Centre to give its views "within three days", after which, she said, she would go ahead.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today said letting them off would be contrary to all principles of justice as Rajiv Gandhi's assassination was "an attack on the soul of India."
The BJP came out with a surprisingly sharp condemnation after being accused of keeping silent because of its plans for a poll tie-up with Jayalalithaa's AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
Describing the decision to free the convicts as unconscionable, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said in a blog, "After assassinating a former Prime Minister how there can be institutional compassion for such persons is difficult to comprehend. Those who commit such heinous crimes cannot be made symbols of identity politics."
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a woman operative of the Lankan Tamil separatist outfit LTTE, who greeted him with a bomb strapped to her chest during a rally in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. For years, the case has been linked to Tamil sentiment and all regional parties have campaigned for the convicts' release.
DMK chief Karunanidhi today said the government had acted hastily by not following due process.