New Delhi: The Supreme Court today stayed the release of three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case by the Tamil Nadu government, saying there have been procedural lapses on the part of the state.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam directed the state government to maintain status quo regarding three prisoners whose death sentence was commuted to life term by it and said the Centre can file a fresh petition regarding the other four prisoners whose sentence has also been remitted.
It said that all procedural checks laid down in the law have not been followed by the state government and it will examine the issue raised by the Centre. Making it clear that it is not taking away the power of the government to remit sentence, the bench, at the same time, said the states have to follow the procedure. "We are concerned about the procedural lapses and we will examine the issue," the bench said, adding that "all states are bound to follow the procedure".
The bench issued notice to the Tamil Nadu government, which strongly opposed the Centre's plea, and directed it to file its response within two weeks. "We are not underestimating the power of state government but we are examining the procedure followed by it," the bench said when the state government pleaded the court not to pass any order on staying the release of the prisoners.
The bench also said that the commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment cannot automatically result in remission of the sentence and the proper procedure laid down in the law has to be follow before releasing the prisoners from jail. It also issued notice to the convicts asking them to file their response within two weeks. The bench posted the matter for hearing on March 6.
Earlier in the day, the Centre moved the apex court seeking a stay on Tamil Nadu government's decision to release the convicts in the case and the court agreed to hear it. Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran pleaded for a stay, saying the state government should not be allowed to release the prisoners till the apex court decided its review petition challenging commutation of death sentence of three condemned prisoners to life imprisonment on ground of delay in deciding mercy petitions.
The Jayalalithaa government had yesterday decided to set free all seven convicts in the assassination case after the apex court had commuted the death penalty of three of them to life imprisonment. Besides Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, who earned a major reprieve on February 18 from the apex court which spared them from gallows, Nalini, Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran are the other four convicts whose release was decided by the Tamil Nadu government.
Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan are currently lodged in the Central Prison, Vellore, in Tamil Nadu and they are in incarceration since 1991. Nalini, Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran, are undergoing life sentence for their role in the assassination of Gandhi on May 21, 1991 in Sriperumbudur. The apex court had commuted the death sentence of Murugan, Santhan (both Sri Lankan Tamils) and A G Perarivalan on the ground of 11 years delay in deciding their mercy pleas by the Centre.
It had also rejected the Centre's submission that there was no unreasonable delay in deciding their mercy plea and the condemned prisoners did not go through agonising experience as they were enjoying life behind the bars. Gandhi's assassins were convicted by a TADA court in January 1998 and were awarded death sentence, which was confirmed by the apex court May 11, 1999.