Centre says in SC it voices grief of victims in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case

The Centre has challenged Tamil Nadu government’s decision to order the release of Rajiv Gandhi case convicts.

July 21, 2015 04:11 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 02:05 am IST - New Delhi

RAJIV ASSASSINS: (L to R) Murugan, Perarivalan and Santhan. File photo

RAJIV ASSASSINS: (L to R) Murugan, Perarivalan and Santhan. File photo

The Centre has a parental duty to voice the grief of families who lost loved ones in the 1991 assassination of former Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur and challenge the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to "tinker" and order the >release of convicts whose death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment in the case, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

The five-judge Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu said this while dismissing Tamil Nadu's preliminary challenge to how the Centre can file a public interest litigation in Supreme Court questioning the States' decision to use their power of remission and order release of life convicts, including in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

Upholding the Centre's petition, Chief Justice Dattu sought to put matters into perspective with senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi for Tamil Nadu.

“The Supreme Court commuted the convicts' death penalty to life. The victims did not complain. But here the State government further tinkers with our judgment. Can the CBI through the Centre not move under Article 32 of the Constitution? After all it's the CBI probe which got them death penalty,” Chief Justice Dattu asked.

Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar submitted that 18 persons were killed and 48 were critically injured in the 1991 blast.

“It is the government who has to take care of interests of the victims. The concept of parens patriae kicks in,” Mr. Kumar submitted.

Earlier in the hearing, the bench quizzed the Centre about the maintainability of its petition after Tamil Nadu challenged it.

“Once we have commuted the death penalty to life. The ball is in the State government's court to decide whether to use its power of remission to release the convicts or not... Now here the State says they have been in prison for 23 years and that is enough... so why do you come to us like a public-spirited person?” CJI asked.

“But life imprisonment is for life... you cannot just release them,” Solicitor General reacted.

Mr. Kumar asked why the State has raised the issue of maintainability now.

Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani, for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts, said the Centre's petition is based on hypothetical questions of law.

“My clients' liberty is at stake. They have spent 24 years in prison. If the State government decision had come through, they would have been released in three or four days. Instead they have suffered prison for another year,” Mr. Jethmalani said.

The Supreme Court had ordered a > stay on states' power of remissio n when it took up the Centre's petition last year.

The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday last had refused to lift its order staying State governments from releasing life convicts, including former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's killers, on remission.

The five-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu refused to lift its stay order passed in July last year, while observing that for the time being "we will not tinker with any of our earlier orders".

On the first day, during a brief hearing before the court adjourned to July 21, counsel for States pressed the Bench to return to the States the power of remission to at least release convicts who have completed over 20 years of their sentence.

"No, no. Not at this stage. We are going to hear the matter in detail. At the end, after we decide, you will either come out or stay in jail," the CJI said.

The long stay order has led to other States like Karnataka, Bihar and West Bengal join hands with Tamil Nadu questioning the Centre's position in Supreme Court that they can release life convicts or death row convicts whose sentences were commuted to life only after permission from the Centre, especially in cases investigated by a central agency.

So, the categorical question before the Bench would be “whether in CBI cases, States have any role on the question of remission to life convicts”.

The other judges on the Bench are Justices F.M.I.Kalifulla, Pinaki Chandra Ghose, Abhay Manohar Sapre and U.U. Lalit.

The issue of remission had reached the apex court after the Tamil Nadu government took a decision to remit the sentences of all seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, after the apex court commuted their death sentence to life imprisonment.The Constitution Bench will also have to decide whether life imprisonment, after commutation, means rest of life or a whether convict has a right to claim remission after completing 14 years of his prison sentence.

The court would have to decide whether a court should hear the family of the victim of a crime before commuting the death penalty.

Again, whether the family's wishes should be considered before the State government remits the sentences of a death penalty prisoner.

The Supreme Court had on July 9, 2014 restrained all States from exercising power of remission for releasing convicts serving life sentences.

The issue of remission was referred to the Constitution Bench after the Centre had challenged the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to remit the sentences of all seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

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

It had later on also 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.

The Jayalalithaa government had decided to set free all the seven convicts who have been in jail for 23 years for their role in the 1991 Rajiv Gandhi assassination in Sriperumbudur.

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