The Supreme Court's direction to the Centre to make clear its position on the Tamil Nadu government proposal of 2014 to release seven convicts serving life terms for their role in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case has not come a moment too soon. It is over 26 years now since the assassination of the former prime minister and almost two decades since the seven - Perarivalan, Murugan, Santhan, Nalini, Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran - were convicted and sentenced to death. The quest for justice has been roiled in endless delays that have dogged every twist and turn in this high-profile case. Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan filed mercy petitions to the President in April 2000. It took the President over 11 years to reject their clemency plea. It was this inordinate delay in the Executive deciding on their mercy pleas that prompted the Supreme Court to commute their death penalty in 2014. A day later, the Tamil Nadu government announced plans to release all seven convicts. The move was stayed by the Supreme Court. It is with regard to this proposal to release the seven convicts that the court has now called on the Centre to clarify its stand one way or the other. The apex court has done well to issue the government a three-month deadline for a decision on the matter.
Justice in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case has been elusive for several reasons. For one, several of the prime accused, including LTTE chief Prabhakaran and his intelligence chief Pottu Amman, could never be put on trial. The suicide bomber was killed in the explosion and her key accomplices killed themselves to escape arrest. But also, several of those convicted were awarded punishments that was not commensurate to the crime they committed. Perarivalan, who supplied two 9-volt batteries for the explosive device, was awarded the death sentence and has been languishing in jail for 26 years, 23 of these in solitary confinement. Worse, it has now emerged that the CBI withheld from the court parts of Perarivalan's confession where he had said that he had "absolutely no idea" of the purpose for which the batteries were to be used.
The Rajiv Gandhi assassination case is a classic example of the adage that delayed justice amounts to denial of justice. It is time the government acted to clarify its stand on freeing of the seven convicts. When the late chief minister J Jayalalitha ordered their release in 2014, Tamil Nadu was two months away from elections. Electoral gains may have prompted her decision. However, there is a case for freeing the seven convicts. They have more than paid for the crime they committed, some perhaps even unknowingly.