Killers of Gandhi walk free after court order

NEW DELHI (Agencies): The last co-conspirators jailed for the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi have walked out of prison, a day after the country’s Supreme Court ordered their release.

Gandhi, 46, was killed by a woman suicide bomber at an election rally in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in a plot by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan armed separatist group. India’s apex court allowed the release of the six convicts, citing their “satisfactory conduct” in prison and the fact that they had already served more than three decades behind bars.

Three of the six – Nalini Sriharan, her husband Murugan, and Santhan – walked out of two prisons in Vellore on Saturday, about 140km (87 miles) from the regional capital Chennai, according to an AFP journalist at the scene. “It’s a new life with my husband and daughter. I thank Tamils for supporting me for more than 30 years. I thank both the state and central governments,” Sriharan told the NDTV channel after her release. Local media said the others – Robert Pais, Jaikumar and Ravichandran – walked out of prisons in Chennai and the city of Madurai in the same state.

Three of the six convicts released on Saturday had initially been condemned to death before their sentences were commuted. Gandhi became India’s youngest prime minister after his mother and predecessor Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. The Gandhi dynasty has been at the helm of the Congress Party, which dominated Indian politics for decades, and Rajiv’s widow Sonia remains the organisation’s most powerful figure, while their son Rahul, 52, is seen as the main challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Last month, the party elected 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge, a former minister, as its first president in 24 years not from the Gandhi dynasty, in an effort to reverse its electoral decline. Rajiv’s killing was seen as a response to his move to send Indian forces to Sri Lanka in 1987 to disarm the Tamil rebels. India lost more than 1,000 men against the well-entrenched rebels before it withdrew its troops. The Congress Party has condemned the court’s decision as “totally unacceptable” and “completely erroneous”.

“It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court has not acted in consonance with the spirit of India on this issue,” the party said, tweeting a statement by senior member Jairam Ramesh. India has a significant Tamil population of its own, and state governments in Tamil Nadu have repeatedly called for the convicts to be freed.

Earlier this year, the court freed AG Perarivalan, another convict involved in the assassination who had previously faced execution, with the state’s current chief minister MK Stalin, a key Congress ally, hugging him after his release. Gandhi’s son has over the years spoken about how he and his sister Priyanka had forgiven their father’s killers. “We were very upset and hurt and for many years we were quite angry,” the Indian Express newspaper quoted Rahul as saying in 2018. But they had since forgiven them, he said, “in fact, completely”.