New Delhi: Thirty-one years after his arrest in connection with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Supreme Court (SC) on 18 May ordered the immediate release of life convict A.G. Perarivalan.
The apex court’s direction has rekindled the hopes of the remaining six similarly placed convicts in the case, who, along with Perarivalan, had approached the Tamil Nadu governor with their mercy petitions in 2015, citing good behaviour in prison and their long stints in incarceration.
While ordering Perarivalan’s release, the SC bench led by Justice L.N. Rao noted a delay on the part of the governor in deciding the convict’s plea for clemency, despite the state cabinet’s recommendation to pardon him.
The governor should not have forwarded such a plea to the President, the bench said, maintaining that, constitutionally, the former was the competent authority to take a decision on it with the aid and advice of the state cabinet.
However, more than three weeks after the SC order, neither the governor nor the Tamil Nadu government have spoken about the release of the other six convicts — Nalini Sriharan, Murugan, Santhan, Ravichandran, Jayakumar and Robert Payas.
A lawyer associated with the case told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that family members of some of these convicts recently reached out to the state government with a request to extend the benefit of the SC judgment to others as well.
“But they are yet to get a response,” he added.
According to the counsel, all seven convicts had moved the governor’s office with their mercy petitions in 2015.
In 2018, the state cabinet advised the then governor Banwarilal Purohit to pardon all of them. But instead of deciding the petitions, the governor forwarded them to the President on the premise that the case was investigated by a central probe agency.
While Perarivalan got relief because he moved court, the others continue to remain incarcerated.
With the top court now clarifying that the governor is constitutionally mandated to decide such a plea, the Tamil Nadu government must make sure that the SC verdict is honoured and the remaining six are released, the counsel quoted earlier said.
Legal experts had hoped the judgment would pave the way for the release of the other six convicts.
Rajiv Gandhi was killed in a suicide bombing at a rally in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, on 21 May 1991. The seven convicts were arrested soon after.
In 1998, they were sentenced to death along with 19 other accused.
In 1999, the 19 other accused were acquitted by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the court upheld the death sentences of Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan, and Nalini, while Payas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran’s sentences were reduced to that of life imprisonment.
In 2000, Nalini’s death sentence was converted to life, following her plea to Sonia Gandhi. In 2014, the SC gave reprieve to the remaining three death-row convicts, as it commuted their sentence to life imprisonment.
Even then, the top court had cited inordinate delay on the part of the Tamil Nadu government in deciding their mercy petitions, which remained pending for 11 years with the executive.
The other four except Perarivalan, Nalini and Ravichandran — Murugan, Santhan alias T. Suthenthiraraja, Robert Payas and Jayakumar — are Sri Lankan nationals. According to lawyers privy to the proceedings, there have been no complaints from the jail authorities regarding their conduct.
According to the CBI chargesheet filed in 1992, Santhan, Payas, Ravichandran and Jayakumar had close links with the mastermind of the assassination, a Sri Lankan national. Perarivalan was charged with procuring batteries for the bomb — strapped on to a suicide bomber — used to kill the former Prime Minister.
Nalini, now 54, was accused number one in the chargesheet. The lone surviving conspirator, she was present at the site of the blast that killed Rajiv Gandhi and 21 others.
She was part of the five-member squad behind the assassination. A close aide of co-convict and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) operative Murugan, Nalini married him during the trial. Their daughter was born in prison.
Jayakumar also married an Indian while serving his sentence.
Of the six convicts who are still in jail, two — Nalini and Ravichandran — are on parole due to medical reasons. Their mercy petition has been in the Madras High Court for more than a year and a half.
Meanwhile, Payas’s review petition against the 1999 judgment — seeking release based on good conduct and long incarceration — has been pending in the Supreme Court. It was filed just before the onset of the pandemic, and prior to the apex court switching to online hearing.
A lawyer handling his case told ThePrint: “Earlier, there were objections (to the petition) by the registry of SC. We have complied with them, but the file is voluminous and also the matter needs to be listed before a three-judge bench, which can be constituted only by the Chief Justice of India.”
‘Lack of knowledge about legal process, family support’
In 2015, Perarivalan moved the Supreme Court, seeking suspension of his sentence until the probe to unearth a larger conspiracy behind the assassination is completed. The hearing on this petition culminated with Perarivalan’s release on 18 May this year.
Advocate S. Prabu Ramasubramanium, who was part of the legal team representing Perarivalan in the apex court, said the difficulty with the other convicts is that their families are not well-versed with legal procedures.
“Perarivalan got support from his family that fought it out in the courts for him. As for others, two out of four Sri Lankan prisoners have no family members here (in India) to follow up the developments in court. The remaining two, who are married to Indians, like the other Indian convicts, do not have a strong family support,” Ramasubramanium said.
“Their level of understanding about the legal system is not very good. They have interpreted the top court order on Perarivalan as a verdict acquitting him,” he added.
‘Tamil Nadu govt can again recommend mercy if it wants’
Legal experts ThePrint spoke to said that it was expected that the SC’s unequivocal opinion about the governor’s role would push the state administrative head to take a call on the future of the remaining six prisoners.
They further said that if the Tamil Nadu government wants, it can take cognisance of the SC ruling in Perarivalan’s case, and once again recommend to the governor to grant them mercy.
“There is a judgment, and, in view of the fact that they were arrested almost together and have spent equal time in jail, there appears no distinction between the six convicts and Perarivalan,” senior Supreme Court advocate Siddhartha Dave told ThePrint.
“Considering the state has previously advised their (convicts’) release, the governor should pardon them,” he added.
However, if the state does not take any measures, the convicts must approach the SC and ask it to invoke Article 142 of the Constitution to also release them, Dave said.
Article 142, which provides discretionary power to the SC to exercise its jurisdiction, is the same one under which the apex court set Perarivalan free.
“The top court used its extraordinary powers to deliver justice to Perarivalan, it must do the same for others as well, after seeking reports from the jail where they are lodged,” said Dave.
Perarivalan’s lawyer Ramasubramanium said the SC’s May order makes “a clear demarcation” between the constitutional powers of the President and that of the governor in pardoning life convicts.
“Since, in this case, the governor had forwarded all seven files to the President, he should ideally call them back and give his opinion on the mercy petitions, based on the 2018 cabinet decision,” he added.
He further said that, if the governor does not act, the state “must make sure that the SC verdict is honoured, since a cabinet decision is already there”.
“The state must write to the governor, asking him to act on its 2018 recommendation,” he added.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)