India’s Supreme Court has commuted the death sentences to life in prison for three men convicted of playing minor roles in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The three have served more than 20 years on death row in Vellore Prison in southern Tamil Nadu state.
They denied knowing anything about the plot to kill Gandhi as he was campaigning in May 1991 for a return to the post of prime minister.
He was killed along with 17 others, including the female suicide assassin, as she greeted him with a garland of sandalwood beads and a bomb strapped to her chest during a rally in Tamil Nadu.
The attack – orchestrated by Tamil Tiger rebels in neighbouring Sri Lanka – virtually ended Indian support for the rebels in their decades-long fight for an ethnic Tamil homeland.
All of the plot’s masterminds, who targeted Gandhi for sending Indian troops to Sri Lanka in 1987, were killed during or after the 1991 attack. Although the troops were sent to oversee a peace accord between the Tigers and the Sinhalese government, they became embroiled in the war and fought the rebels for months.
The three men on death row were among 26 convicted of minor roles in the plot. While they have been reviled across much of India, many Tamils in the south believe they were duped into taking part in a conspiracy they knew little about.
Indian national Arivu Perarivalan was found guilty of buying a nine-volt battery used in the bomb, while Sri Lankans Murugan and Santhan – who use only one name – acknowledged they were Tamil Tiger rebels but said they were only pawns in a larger game they barely understood.
Mercy petitions they filed in 2000 were rejected in 2011.
Their lawyers argued executing the three now, after they had already served long prison terms, would amount to an unconstitutional double punishment.
“This is a landmark judgment,” said lawyer Yug Chaudhry, applauding the court for rejecting the idea that the prisoners should show proof of “the scars of mental suffering” in awaiting their executions for decades.
Human rights activists cheered the decision. Lawyer Vrinda Grover said: “Delay in disposing of mercy petitions of death row convicts amounts to inhumane treatment. It amounts to torture.”
Hangings are rare in India, with four in the past 18 years, although there are some 400 prisoners on death row.
The Supreme Court last month agreed that “unexplained delay is grounds for commuting death penalty to life sentence” as it commuted 15 other death sentences.
Amnesty International said the decision “shows the judiciary’s willingness to uphold standards set for the treatment of prisoners on death row”.
The Vellore Three, as they are known, were the only convicts left on death row in the case, after 23 others were released or had sentences commuted to life. The last clemency granted was for Murugan’s wife after Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, asked in 1999 that no-one be hanged. Sonia Gandhi is now leader of the ruling Congress party.
In an interview in 2011, the three said they hoped for release. “We feel it is only a matter of time before clemency is granted,” said Santhan, who hopes to join a Hindu retreat in the Himalayas. Perarivalan said he dreamed of helping prisoners wrongly convicted.
Perarivalan’s mother Arputham Ammal, 67 – who has visited her son weekly since he was jailed at 19 – said: “I now have peace of mind.”
But the news was received bitterly in the northern territory of Kashmir, where last year Mohammed Afzal Guru was executed for a 2001 attack on India’s parliament. A 2006 mercy petition was turned down days before Guruwas hanged in a New Delhi prison on 9 February 2013.