India's top court has stopped the government of Tamil Nadu state from releasing three of the seven prisoners serving life sentences for the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, a lawyer said.
The state ruled yesterday that the seven should be released because they have served more than 20 years in prison. Critics attacked the decision, calling it a transparent attempt to win over Tamil voters in this year's national elections.
The federal government petitioned the Supreme Court today to stop the state from freeing the prisoners, with prime minister Manmohan Singh saying the move was "not legally tenable".
The court had commuted the death sentences for three of the convicts after their lawyers argued that executing them now, after they had served long prison terms, would amount to an unconstitutional double punishment.
Rakesh Dwivedi, a lawyer for Tamil Nadu's government, said the court's order today applied only to the three prisoners whose sentences had been commuted, and that the state was free to release the other four.
The court asked the federal government to file a separate petition regarding the fate of the four prisoners not covered by today's decision, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Mr Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu in May 1991 as he campaigned for a return to the post of prime minister. He was 47. Seventeen other people, including the bomber, were killed in the attack.
The assassination was orchestrated by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels to avenge Mr Gandhi's decision to send Indian troops to intervene in the country's civil war in the 1980s.
Mohan Parasaran, the solicitor-general who argued the federal government's petition against the release of the convicts, said he told the Supreme Court that the state government had no authority to free the prisoners.
"The appropriate government to consider the grant of remission to prisoners is the federal government," he told reporters.
The court scheduled further arguments in the case to be heard on March 6, and the state is unlikely to release any of the seven prisoners - six men and one woman - before then.
Tamil Nadu's government ruled yesterday that the seven should be released because they have served more than 20 years in prison. Jayaram Jayalalitha, the state's senior elected official, said if the federal government failed to respond to the decision within three days, she would release all of them on her own.
The issue triggered noisy scenes when the lower house of India's Parliament met, with politicians from the ruling Congress Party strongly protesting against the decision. The speaker adjourned the session for an hour to cool the tempers.
Prior to the Supreme Court's ruling, Mr Singh formally asked the state not to free the convicts.
"We have informed the Tamil Nadu government that their proposed course of action to release the killers of Rajiv Gandhi is not legally tenable and should not be proceeded with," he said in a statement to the media.
He said Mr Gandhi's assassination was "an attack on the soul of India".
"No government or party should be soft in our fight against terrorism," the statement said.