AG Perarivalan, one of the convicts in former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, who has been behind bars for 31 years, will be released, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday. The verdict could pave the way for the release of other six convicts in the case, including Nalini Sriharan and her husband Murugan, a Sri Lankan national.
"State cabinet had taken its decision based on relevant considerations. In exercise of Article 142, it is appropriate to release the convict," judges led by Justice L Nageswara Rao said, invoking special powers of the Supreme Court.
Speaking shortly after the verdict, Perarivalan said, "Truth and justice were on our side. This wouldn't have happened without the support and love of the people. I firmly believe there is no need for capital punishment."
Welcoming the judgement, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin said it could find a place in the "Justice-law-political-administrative history."
Nineteen at the time of the assassination, Perarivalan was accused of buying the two 9-volt batteries for Sivarasan, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) man who masterminded the assassination. The batteries were used in the bomb to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Perarivalan was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in 1998. The next year, the Supreme Court upheld the sentence but commuted it to life imprisonment in 2014. In March this year, the top court had granted him bail.
Shortly after, Perarivalan had appealed seeking an early release from jail.
The Centre had opposed Perarivalan's plea, saying Tamil Nadu Governor had referred the matter to President Ram Nath Kovind, who is yet to take a call on it.
The top court had questioned the delay in the matter and the Governor's action.
The court had observed that the Tamil Nadu Governor is bound by the cabinet decision to release all seven convicts in the case, granting them pardon under Section 161 of the Constitution, and hence it would not wait for the President's response though the Governor had forward the file to the President's Office.
In the hearing last week, the Centre drew flak from the court over its argument that in cases of grant of mercy, only the President would have exclusive powers.
The court said this would mean the mercies granted by Governors all these years would be unconstitutional.
The Congress expressed pain and disappointment over Wednesday's verdict, and slammed the government for creating "a situation" in the court to get the killer of a former prime minister released for their "petty and cheap politics".
"A terrorist is a terrorist and should be treated as one. Today, we are deeply pained and disappointed at the decision of the Supreme Court ordering the release of Rajiv Gandhi's assassin," Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 1991 at Tamil Nadu's Sriperumbudur by a woman suicide bomber, identified as Dhanu, at an election rally.
Seven people were convicted in the case. Though all were sentenced to death, in 2014, the Supreme Court commuted them to life terms, citing inordinate delay by the President in deciding on their mercy pleas.
The jail term of one of them, Nalini Sriharan, was commuted to life in 2000 following intervention by Rajiv Gandhi's widow Sonia Gandhi, as the woman had given birth to a child while in jail.
Though the Tamil Nadu cabinet under J Jayalalithaa and Edappadi K Palanisami had moved for the release of the convicts in 2016 and 2018, successive Governors did not abide by it. After much delay, they forwarded it to the President, who only acts on the counsel of the Union cabinet.
Perarivalan and others moved courts as they were denied remission like other convicts even after they served beyond 16 years. They've now spent three decades in jail.
Perarivalan, who was in solitary confinement for many years, has a very good conduct record in jail. He had earned several academic qualifications during the long incarceration. He had also authored a book.
While Perarivalan claimed all along that he wasn't aware of the purpose he was asked to get the batteries, years later, a retired CBI officer, Mr Thiagarajan, had apologised claiming he had altered the Perarivalan's confessional statement.