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Indian state to free 7 in assassin plot

MUMBAI, India — The chief minister of Tamil Nadu said Wednesday that her government would free seven men who were convicted of plotting the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India.

The minister, J. Jayalalithaa, said her government had the authority to free the prisoners, who have been imprisoned in Tamil Nadu since 1991. She gave the federal government three days to respond.

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The announcement came a day after the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of three of the men to life imprisonment, saying they had been on death row for too long, constituting cruel and unusual punishment. This paved the way for the decision to free the seven prisoners.

Jayalalithaa’s announcement was seen by many analysts as a strategic move to shore up local pro-Tamil sentiment before elections for the lower house of Parliament, as well as part of a wider movement by Indian states to challenge New Delhi on the use of the death penalty, which they view as often political in nature.

In 1991, Gandhi was campaigning for the Congress party in Tamil Nadu when a suicide bomber, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, set off bombs in her clothes as she handed him flowers.

Prosecutors said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group from Sri Lanka, was behind the killing of Gandhi because as prime minister he sent Indian troops to put down the Tamil rebellion during the Sri Lankan civil
war.

A total of 26 people were found guilty of conspiring to kill Gandhi, the husband of Sonia Gandhi, the current president of the Congress Party, and the father of Rahul Gandhi, the party’s vice president.

Nineteen were later acquitted.

While it was Jayalalithaa, leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, who made the announcement Wednesday, the prisoner release was backed by other political parties in the state.

“All political parties in the state are vying with one another to cater to the Sri Lankan Tamil population,” said Rajeev Sharma, author of “Beyond the Tigers: Tracking Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination.”

“Their political goal is to use the Sri Lankan Tamil issue to further their domestic political agenda.”

In Tamil Nadu, the Gandhi assassination case provides the state with an opportunity to assert authority over New Delhi.

Jayalalithaa cited as the legal basis for her decision Section 432 of the criminal code, which states: “When any person has been sentenced to punishment for an offense, the appropriate government may . . . suspend the execution of his sentence or remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced.”

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