New Delhi: In a significant development, the Supreme Court on Friday deferred the verdict in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and referred the case to a larger Constitution Bench.
The Constitution Bench will now decide whether the Tamil Nadu government can release a life term convict whose death sentence has been converted into life imprisonment.
Saying that an interim order staying Tamil Nadu government's decision on remission of sentence will continue, the top court added that the seven conspirators in the assassination case will not be released for now.
The apex court bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam framed seven questions to be addressed by the Constitution Bench, including whether after commutation of the death sentence into life imprisonment, can the government further grant them remission by releasing them.
The court also said that the Constitution Bench, which will take up the matter within three months, will also address which is the appropriate government under the code of criminal procedure - whether it is the state government or the central government or both.
Senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy welcomed the apex court's decision, calling it 'sensible'.
The Centre had filed a petition challenging the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to release the life convicts.
On February 20, a bench of Chief Justice P Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh stayed the state government’s order, citing procedural lapses on the part of the State.
Notably, Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam, is demitting office today.
The Centre had filed a petition challenging the State’s authority in ordering the release of all seven convicts, a day after the Supreme Court rejected its appeal against the commutation of death sentence to three convicts in the case — V Sriharan, alias Murugan, AG Perarivalan, alias Arivu, and T Suthendraraja, alias Santhan.
The bench had on February 18 commuted the death sentence of the three conspirators to life imprisonment, citing its January 21 judgement, which held that inordinate, unexplained and unreasonable delay in deciding the mercy petition of death row convicts was a ground for commutation of death to life imprisonment. The Tamil Nadu government subsequently decided to set free all the seven convicts in the case.
Besides Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan, the other four convicts are Nalini, Robert Pyas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran.
Rajiv Gandhi, who was the prime minister 1984-89, was killed by Dhanu, a Sri Lankan suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, at an election rally in Sriperumbudur near Chennai on May 21, 1991.
In 1998, all the 26 accused in the case were sentenced to death by a special trial court.
In 1999, the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences of four – Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan and Nalini – while the capital punishment to the others was reduced to varying terms of imprisonment.
Santhan, Murugan and Arivu are currently lodged in the Central Prison, Vellore and they are in jail since 1991.
The other four are also undergoing life sentence in Sriperumbudur.