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Rajiv Gandhi convicts may be freed


Former India prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, centre, campaigns for election a few days before he was assassinated (AP)

Former India prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, centre, campaigns for election a few days before he was assassinated (AP)

Former India prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, centre, campaigns for election a few days before he was assassinated (AP)

An Indian state has ruled that seven men serving life sentences for the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi should be freed because they have served more than 20 years in prison.

Critics immediately slammed the decision by Tamil Nadu state, where the men are serving their sentences, saying it was a clear attempt to win over Tamil voters in this year's national elections.

The federal government must approve the state's decision before the men can be released. But Jayaram Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu's top elected official, said she would wait only three days.

"If (the federal government) fails to respond in three days, we will release all of them on our own," she told the state legislature.

Mr Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber 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 also killed in the attack.

The assassination was orchestrated by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels to avenge Mr Gandhi's decision to send Indian peacekeepers to intervene in the country's civil war in the 1980s.

While the convicts have been reviled across much of India, many ethnic Tamils in the south believe they were duped into taking part in a plot they knew little about. The people of Tamil Nadu have a strong affinity with Tamils living in northern Sri Lanka.

With Indian national elections due to be held by May, two powerful state parties led by Jayalalitha and her rival, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, are eager to garner the support of Tamils sympathetic to the cause of Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka.

Gnani, a Tamil writer and political commentator, said both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi had supported harsh punishment for Mr Gandhi's assassins in the past.

"This change of heart is because the national elections are around the corner," said Gnani, who uses one name.

The state government's decision came a day after India's Supreme Court commuted the death sentences to life in prison for three of the seven convicts. Their lawyers argued that executing the three now, after they had already served long prison terms, would amount to an unconstitutional double punishment.

Yug Chaudhry, a lawyer for the prisoners, said on Wednesday that the men were entitled to be freed because they had served more than 20 years.

Historically in India, life sentences have seen convicts spend about 14 years in prison before being released. In 2012, however, the Supreme Court said life terms mean convicts should spend their remaining years in prison.

The seven convicts, who were among 26 people convicted of playing minor roles in the plot to kill Mr Gandhi, are the only ones still in prison for the assassination. Some of the other convicts died in prison and others were released.

Mr Gandhi's widow, Sonia, is leader of the governing Congress Party, and their son, Rahul, is widely expected to be the party's prime ministerial candidate in this year's parliamentary elections.

Rajiv Gandhi's mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated while prime minister in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards after she ordered the Indian army into the Sikh's holiest shrine in the northern city of Amritsar to stamp out a separatist campaign.

Rahul Gandhi criticised the state's decision.

"The (former) prime minister of the country was killed, I am sad that the killers are being released," the CNN-IBN television news channel quoted him as saying.

PA Media