New Delhi: The Supreme Court Friday set free six convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, after noting they had spent more than three decades in jail.
A bench of justices B.R. Gavai and B.V. Nagarathna ordered the release of Nalini Srihar, Robert Pais, Ravichandran, Suthenthira Raja alias Santhan, Shriharan alias Murugan and Jaikumar.
In its order giving relief to them, the bench said: “In so far as the applicants before us are concerned, their death sentences are commuted to life on account of delays. We direct that all the appellants are deemed to have served their sentence. The applicants are thus directed to be released unless required in any other case.”
All the six convicts were undergoing life imprisonment in jail. Nalini and Ravichandran, however, were on parole for almost a year.
Apart from taking note of the convicts’ satisfactory conduct” in jail, the bench placed reliance on its earlier order that had ordered premature release of another convict A.G. Perarivalan on 17 May, this year.
A bench comprising justices L.N. Rao and Gavai had invoked its extraordinary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution to release Perarivalan. It held that the governor in the matter of remission was bound by the state’s recommendation to release the convicts in the assassination case. In Perarivalan’s case, the court opined, there was inordinate delay by the governor in taking a decision on plea for remission.
Perarivalan’s 7-year court battle
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at a rally in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, on 21 May, 1991, in a suicide bombing. Only 19 years old then, Perarivalan was arrested on 11 June, 1991. On 28 January, 1998, 26 people, including Perarivalan and Nalini, were sentenced to death.
But on an appeal filed by all, the top court upheld the death sentence of four people —Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan and Nalini — on 11 May, 1999.
In February 2014, the top court commuted the death sentence to life. Perarivalan was accused of supplying the 9-volt batteries that were used by the suicide bomber. All along, Perarivalan claimed he was innocent and maintained that he had no knowledge about the alleged use of the batteries he had supplied.
Among the convicts, Perarivalan, was the first to take steps to secure his premature release. He first moved a clemency petition before the governor in December 2015. He then moved the Supreme Court seeking suspension of his sentence until the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) — set up to unearth the larger conspiracy behind the assassination — completed its investigation.
It was during the hearing of this petition, that the top court sought to know the status of Perarivalan’s clemency petition before the governor. This led the Tamil Nadu cabinet to recommend the release of all convicts on 9 September, 2018.
Two years later, Perarivalan was given parole by the top court. It was then that the state informed SC about the governor’s silence on Perarivalan’s clemency petition.
In March this year, considering his good conduct and taking into account the educational qualifications he had acquired during his more than three decades of incarceration, the top court gave him bail.
After seven long years of court battle that witnessed several twists and turns, with a former CBI officer swearing Perarivalan’s innocence and the Modi government changing its stand on whether it is the President or the governor who is authorised to pardon the convicts, the court finally released Perarivalan in May.
Gained qualifications, won awards while in prison
Following this SC order, Nalini and Ravichandran had moved the Madras High Court with their plea for premature release. But the HC dismissed it, observing that it lacked the special powers that the top court had and, therefore, did not have the jurisdiction to issue a similar order, like the SC did in Perarivalan’s case.
The matter then reached the Supreme Court, with both Nalini and Ravichandran claiming parity and also putting forth the point about their long incarceration in jail. Meanwhile, the other four — Pais, Shriharan, Santhan and Jaikumar, filed their interventions, asking for a similar relief.
In response, the Tamil Nadu government supported the premature release of six convicts. Applying the same parameter as it did in Perarivalan’s case, the top court Friday noted that Nalini, while behind bars, had got a PG diploma in computer application. Ravichandran’s conduct was also found satisfactory as he had undertaken various studies during his incarceration, including a PG diploma in arts.
Robert Pais, the court observed, had also obtained several qualifications while in prison. Similarly, Jaikumar, too had undertaken further studies during his imprisonment. In the case of Santhan, the court took note of various articles written by him, which had not only been published but also received awards.
Shriharan’s conduct was also found to be satisfactory, the court recorded in its order. Additionally, in Pais and Santhan’s cases, the court said, the two were also suffering from various ailments.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)