Rajiv Gandhi murder: India court suspends plotters' release

Rajiv Gandhi Rajiv Gandhi's murder was seen as retaliation for his having sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987

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India's Supreme Court has put on hold the release of three of the seven people convicted of involvement in the 1991 murder of former PM Rajiv Gandhi.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, where the plotters are held, ordered the release of all seven on Wednesday.

But India's central government promptly mounted a legal challenge against that order. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it was "not legally tenable".

The six men and a woman were members of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebel group.

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Tamil Nadu's decision... is being described by many as a political masterstroke by the ruling state government.”

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Earlier reports had incorrectly suggested the court was staying the release of all seven.

The three prisoners whose release has been halted are the men whose death sentences were commuted earlier this week by the Supreme Court - known as Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. They have been in jail for more than 20 years and on death row since 1998.

The court cited apparent "procedural lapses" by the Tamil Nadu government in ordering their release. The next hearing is on 6 March.

Reports say there is nothing to prevent the Tamil Nadu government from releasing the other four prisoners as planned.

But India's Law Minister Kapil Sibal has said the government will petition the court against the release of those four "later".

'Attack on India's soul'

Gandhi's murder in May 1991 was seen as retaliation for Indian involvement in Sri Lanka's civil war, after peacekeepers were deployed there in 1987.

Sanjoy Majumder explains how the case unfolded

When it commuted the death sentences of Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, the Supreme Court found that it was inhumane to keep them for so long under the threat of execution.

Tamil Nadu immediately moved to free all seven prisoners held in connection with the case and gave India's central government three days to respond to the decision. The prime minister's response was to challenge the order in the court.

"The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India. The release of the killers of a former prime minister of India and our great leader, as well as several other innocent Indians, would be contrary to all principles of justice," Manmohan Singh said in a statement.

Murugan (left) and Nalini Among the prisoners to be freed are Murugan (left) and his wife, Nalini Sriharan

Three other convicts - Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran - who are serving life sentences for involvement in the assassination were also ordered to be freed.

Nalini Sriharan, an Indian Tamil woman who will also be released, was also given the death penalty by the trial court in 1998, but the authorities commuted this to life imprisonment in 2000.

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