Cannot release Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts, Centre informs Supreme Court

It was an unparalleled act in the annals of crimes committed in this country, the Centre has told the Tamil Nadu government.

The Supreme Court on Friday accepted on record a communication from the Central government rejecting a proposal made by the Tamil Nadu government to release seven convicts undergoing life imprisonment in the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

The assassination was an unparalleled act in the annals of crimes committed in this country, the Centre has told the State government.

“The brutal act brought the Indian democratic process to a grinding halt in as much as the general elections to the Lok Sabha and Assembliee in some States had to be postponed,” the Centre said, rejecting the Tamil Nadu government’s proposal to release the convicts.

The Centre said 16 innocent lives were lost and many sustained grievous injuries in the “gruesome, inhuman, uncivilised and mericless bomb blast.” The letter said the assassination shows “exceptional depravity,” including the use of a woman as a human bomb.

A three-judge Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Navin Sinha and K.M. Joseph received the April 2018 letter.

The Centre explained to Tamil Nadu that setting the convicts free now would be a “dangerous precedent and lead to international ramifications by other such criminals in future.”

The Tamil Nadu government had written to the Centre on March 2, 2016 proposing the grant of remission to the convicts. The State government wanted the Centre to concur.

Failing to reply for almost two years, the Centre’s response in April comes after a Supreme Court order to do so.

In the two-page response, the Centre said it considered TN’s proposal in consultation with the CBI. The assassination was “brutal” and “in pursuance of a diabolical plot carefully considered and executed by a highly organised foreign terrorist organisation.”

It conveyed that the CBI, which investigated the case, was also opposed to releasing them in the interest of justice. The case has already been reviewed in the highest forums of the judiciary and executive, all agreeing to the guilt of the convicts, said the Centre.

The Tamil Nadu government had first proposed remission for the convicts in a letter dater February 19, 2014. This had spurred the Centre to move the Supreme Court. It had triggered the question whether a State could unilaterally remit life sentence in a case investigated by a central agency like the CBI, as in this case.

On December 2, 2015, a five-judge Constitution Bench led by then Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu interpreted the law to hold that States cannot unilaterally remit the sentences of life convicts in cases investigated by a central agency under a central law.

The Constitution Bench however left the factual question of whether the seven convicts deserve remission or not to a three-judge Bench.

A three-judge Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi, A.M. Sapre and Navin Sinha decided that since the State’s letter of 2014 was still pending with the Centre, the latter should now take a decision.

The Constitution Bench, speaking through Justice F.M.I. Kalifulla, had interpreted Section 435 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which dealt with remissions of life convicts.

The majority judgment of the Constitution Bench said the word “consultation” in the provision actually meant “concurrence.” The Bench had ruled that consultation with the Centre in heinous cases should not be an empty formality as national interest is at stake.

In a 200-page majority judgment, Justice Kalifulla repeatedly made scathing references about the convicts but stopped short of deciding the merits of Tamil Nadu government’s request for remission.

Now, the court is deciding the convicts’ remission independently without being slightly influenced by the negative remarks made by the Constitution Bench.

The apex court had on February 20, 2014 stayed the Tamil Nadu government’s move to release three convicts — Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan — whose death sentences were commuted to life term by it on February 18 in the case.

It had later on stayed release of four other convicts Nalini, Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran in the case, saying there were procedural lapses on the part of the State government.

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